The American running world first took note of South African import Annie Bothma at the 2015 Roy Griak Invitational, where she placed third in the field of 243 runners while sporting a Boise State uniform. The barefooted phenom disappeared shortly thereafter, only to reappear an entire year later at the UVA Panorama Farms Invitational -- this time in a turquoise Coastal Carolina singlet.
Bothma revealed after her runner-up finish in Charlottesville that she had been hit by a truck following Roy Griak in 2015 and subsequently sat out the entire track season, eventually transferring schools.
But that accident is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bothma's chronic health struggles, which she recently opened up about in a blog post soliciting donations to her foundation -- The Grace Fund -- to help treat chronic illness, including her own recently diagnosed hypopituitarism.
The 21-year-old grew up in Stellenbosch, South Africa, a university town on the Western Cape. Bothma was a healthy, athletic child until age 11 when, she writes on her blog, her "natural growing ceased" and she "started losing weight at an alarming rate."
"We saw a multitude of doctors, each failing to tell me the real cause of my strange condition. This put significant financial strain on my family, due to the accumulation of endless medical costs. Every day I faced judgement and resentment for something which I could not even explain. I was later diagnosed with Celiac disease, which triggers an allergic reaction upon the digestion of gluten, at the age of seventeen. The consequence of this truth was, however, not as positive as I had expected. Since this news my health declined even further over the following two years. Symptoms included fatigue, weight loss, inability to handle cold, anemia (low iron), low blood pressure, diminished blood sugar levels and dizziness, just to name a few."
Despite the chronic, unexplained sickness during her teen years, Bothma still managed to develop into one of the top young distance runners in South Africa.
As a 19-year-old in 2015, she placed third at the South African XC championships and finished 48th in the senior-level IAAF world XC championships. She would soon head to the United States with a full scholarship to compete at Boise State.
In June of that year, the 68-pound, barely five-foot 19-year-old saw an endocrinologist who finally had an answer for her health woes.
"He told me that I have a rare disorder called Hypopituitarism, which causes the pituitary gland, situated at the base of the brain, to fail in its production of hormones by producing too little or, in rare cases, none. The hormones secreted by this bean-shaped gland influence nearly every part of the human body, including growth, reproduction and blood pressure. The absence of these critically important hormones can thus severely cripple the development of the human body, which was undoubtedly apparent in my case, since I am severely undersized when compared to my family, in regards to both weight and length, as well as the lack of some basic development usually undergone by a growing child. The reason behind my still reasonable weight lies in my genes and normal thyroid."
The endocrinologist prescribed Bothma growth hormones, which over the past two years have increased her stats to 5-2 and 90 pounds. But her growth is still severely stunted and even now, as a 21-year-old, her bones have an age of just 13. Low bone density makes Bothma more prone to injuries, several of which have derailed the promising athlete during her as-of-yet brief NCAA career.
The 2016 cross country season saw her win the NCAA DI Southeast Region XC title over Panorama Farms foe Rome, only to drop out of the national championship race due to unbearable pain from a back injury. She fought her way back to fitness and in the spring, won the NCAA DI East Preliminary 10K with a PB of 33:37.91 before placing 19th at NCAAs, her first finish at an NCAA championship.
Bothma's small stature had another, unexpected side effect: internet trolls who berated her on social media for an eating disorder that she didn't have.
One day after the NCAA outdoor 10K final, she posted an explanation of her health condition on Instagram followed by this caption:
"I hope this [will] silence all the trash talk on social media about my weight. I DO NOT HAVE AN EATING DISORDER! I am have [sic] a serious ILLNESS and I DO NOT RUN TO BE THIN. I run because I LOVE IT!"
Bothma announced via Instagram in August that she would redshirt the upcoming cross country season as she continues to receive treatment and heal her fragile bones. She will need medication for the rest of her life to control her hypopituitarism and now she is asking the running community to help.