Merging Pain With Purpose: A Teen’s Triumph Over Arthritis

Maddie Watts adaptive skiing © Courtesy of Maddie Watts

Vancouver teen Maddie Watts craves the exhilaration of flying downhill, carving through the snow with the wind in her face. At 16, Maddie feared arthritis had stolen her favourite sport. But today, Maddie is using her incurable disease to aspire to greater heights, experiencing the slopes in a new way with a new pursuit—the 2026 Winter Paralympics in Italy.

When Maddie’s dad encouraged her to try adaptive skiing, she never imagined catching the attention of the Canadian Paralympic Committee with her natural talent. On her third day of sit skiing, an email arrived with an unexpected invitation to train.

“Being any kind of Olympian was never something I thought I would do or even want to do,” said Maddie. “But when the opportunity arises, you’ve at least got to try!”

A whole new world of opportunity and promise has opened for Maddie.

But the promising opportunity came at the cost of an uphill battle with an abrupt life pivot—severe arthritis.

One day, Maddie went from being a seemingly healthy teen passionate about skiing to collapsing and lying in a hospital bed. This started an agonizing 18-month journey to a diagnosis of joint facet syndrome, an acute form of arthritis aggressively attacking her spine.

No one thinks of arthritis in youth. It’s one reason why it took so long to get a diagnosis. The agony of uncertainty and debilitating pain was nearly unbearable.

“I had been misdiagnosed a few times because my condition is not recognized in young people,” shared Maddie. “Receiving my diagnosis was, more than anything, a relief. I had spent so many months entirely lost on what was happening to my body, why it was happening, and how to help myself thrive again.”

Arthritis stole precious moments of Maddie’s teen years, causing her to miss school, prom, and activities with her friends. She had days of sitting in a wheelchair or using a walker while her friends were out skiing and dancing. She lost relationships because she couldn’t be present in the same way.

When Maddie’s doctor said she couldn’t ski again, the words struck like a final crushing blow, snatching away hope. She had lost so much all at once. But everything changed the day Maddie first sat in the moulded bucket seat above the skis, clasping the outriggers, and once again felt the snow passing beneath her. With her family’s unwavering support, she relearned her sport in a new way. Maddie found herself dreaming again—ready to fight for her future.

maddie watts
Maddie Watts adaptive skiing © Courtesy of Maddie Watts

While reinvigorated with new aspirations, arthritis remains Maddie’s constant companion. She endures pain, exhaustion, medical trials, adverse reactions, unpredictable flare-ups and the isolating frustration of living with an invisible disease.

Maddie has found support through Arthritis Society Canada’s peer groups and helpful resources. She’s also discovered the shared challenges in the difficult diagnosis process among young people and is motivated to do something about it.

Merging pain with purpose, Maddie advocates for arthritis awareness, especially among youth, while passionately pursuing the 2026 Paralympics.

“It’s such a misunderstood disease and often dismissed as a natural part of aging,” shared Maddie. “But one in five Canadians, and as many as 25,000 Canadian children, live with arthritis. It’s a serious disease and there is no cure.”

Despite her chronic condition, Maddie sees herself beyond arthritis, aiming to inspire and bring hope to others facing similar challenges through arthritis advocacy and her Paralympics pursuit. “Through it all, it’s important to leave yourself time to live,” said Maddie.

In her sit ski, experiencing the rush of racing down beautiful snow-covered mountains, Maddie is living. With the tenacity of a hopeful Olympic athlete with promise, she’s determined to turn her pain into purpose and make a difference in the lives of others.

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