A man in a blue polo shirt stares at the camera.

Jake Waterman was at the top of his game when a bowel condition saw him lose 12kgs. This is how he got back

Jake Waterman remembers when he first thought something was very wrong with his health.

Key points:

Jake Waterman was in the prime of his career when ulcerative colitis struck
He lost 12kgs and wondered if he would ever feel normal again
Now he is back and ready to help the West Coast Eagles in 2024

The West Coast Eagles forward was flying to Adelaide for a game against the Crows, and was feeling the effects of what he thought was gastro.

“The plumbing wasn’t very good for a couple of days there,” Waterman told the ABC.

“It wasn’t to the point where I wasn’t able to leave home, I was able be comfortable and sort of train and whatnot, I just had to keep an eye out.

“When I started panicking was when I was getting real nauseous, and started vomiting and whatnot.”

The 25-year old spoke to the Eagles doctors and withdrew from the clash with Adelaide and flew home, where it had become clear he wasn’t suffering from a run-of-the-mill illness.

“‘I’ve had bouts of gastro and food poisoning stuff before and it was a little bit different, because I wasn’t as as sick but I had these lingering symptoms,” Waterman said.

“I flew home from the Adelaide game and the next day, the next morning I felt okay and I thought, well I might have got through whatever it was.

Jake Waterman played 11 games for West Coast last season before being struck down by ulcerative colitis.(AAP Image: James Worsfold)

“Then that night and then the next morning was no good, couldn’t sleep, was sick, had all the symptoms that someone would expect for someone with a bit of IBD [inflammatory bowel disease].”

He went to hospital, and spent 10 days getting treated. He can’t remember the first few days.

“I was just so out of it. I was nowhere,” he said.

“I probably spent most of it sleeping, in tremendous amounts of pain.”

Specialists started searching for what was causing his IBD, with Waterman eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an auto-immune condition which causes inflammation of the lower parts of the digestive system.

“Once we found out that, it was straight onto medication and how we can get you feeling better in the short term, and then with also having an eye on the long term, what that’s going to look like,” he said.

‘Anything to feel normal again’

In the back of his mind was an eventual return to the Eagles and the AFL, but he had other priorities early on.

“You do anything to feel normal again,” he said.

“So I’m just like ‘nah, I don’t need to play football … just get me normal again’.

A man in a blue polo shirt stares at the camera.

Jake Waterman says his competitive juices started to kick in once his symptoms were under control.(ABC News: Tom Wildie)

“I don’t want to feel this pain anymore.

“But then as you sort of get through the recovery, you start feeling normal again, and then that competitiveness in you, the love for footy, just kicks back in and then you start thinking about, okay, how can I get back to playing.”

Waterman knew playing was a long way off. The effect the disease had on his body was substantial.

The forward plays his football at 94 kilograms, but had lost extreme amounts of weight in a short period of time.

“I lost 12kgs. I think I got down to about 82,” he said.

Waterman spent three weeks at home resting before he went back to West Coast’s Lathlain Park headquarters. He had an eye on a late-season return with the Eagles WAFL side.

“I wanted something to look forward to,” he said.

“I had the last one or two WAFL games in the back of my mind, that if I can get in a decent position and get in good enough condition where I can go and help — not necessarily play well — just go and help the boys.”

But after just a week of training at the Eagles, he knew that wasn’t going to happen.

“The sensitivity in my stomach, bouncing up and down, was too much to bear and I pretty much called it that day,” he said.

“I didn’t run for four weeks, got back in the gym, put my weight back on, did a lot of bike cardio and swim cardio.”

Backwards to go forwards

Waterman says the disease and recovery forced him to mature.

“With injuries in the past, I’ve probably pushed the envelope a little bit to the point where it negatively affects you, because you’re trying to get back,” he said.

“I had to sit back and really think about just my life as a whole and come to the conclusion that the best way forward was to sort of go backwards a little bit.

An Australian rules football player prepares to catch the ball.

Jake Waterman endured a frustrating 2023, but he’s back and keen to help the Eagles rebound from their worst ever year. (AAP Image: Daniel Pockett)

“[I had to] allow my body to catch up physically and also mentally as well. And just get myself in a position where, you know, I was symptom free, not just for a few days, but for weeks, maybe even a month, and then go forward from then.

“When I got back to training, when I would feel a symptom, I just stopped then and there.

“I wouldn’t push through any pain, I just stopped and called it a day and just be like, I’ve got a symptom after this, how’s my preparation?”

Managing an auto-immune disease requires a lot of trial-and-error, particularly an IBD.

Waterman had to explore which foods he could eat, as well as what medications he could take.

Two AFL players jostle for position.

Jake Waterman says people who are battling with gastrointestinal issues should seek medical help.(AAP Image: Richard Wainwright)

“Initially, there was a medication that I needed to get ticked off by the AFL, which may have conflicted with all the rules and that around playing medication and stuff like that,” he said.

“But as I wasn’t in competition at that time, it was fine.

“Now I’m off that medication, so it’s all good. But yeah, I’m on medication daily, do some infusion treatment probably every couple of months for certain medications.”

The comeback trail

After a slow and steady recovery, Waterman eventually returned to full training, and has impressed with his condition.

He won the endurance time-trial, and was celebrated by his coaches as being among the Eagles best trainers.

One AFL player tackles another.

Jake Waterman impressed in the Eagles’ recent endurance test, outlasting teammates Andrew Gaff and Liam Duggan.(AAP Image: Gary Day)

“I guess it’s probably just a recognition of the hard work I’ve put in,” Waterman said.

“A lot of the boys saw me when I was crook, how crook I looked, the work I’ve been putting in to get back to a level where I can not only just hang on with the boys but feel like I’m really challenging them.

“It’s good to know that because you do doubt yourself during those processes, where some things just seem a little bit too far away, or you get those ifs or buts, doubts in your mind.

“At times, I didn’t think I was gonna get back here, so just enjoy every moment you can.”

A new perspective

The whole experience has given Waterman a different outlook on life, from listening to his body to appreciating the simple things.

“You’re walking the halls of hospitals, and you see some people who are actually really sick, and who’ve got real life-threatening illnesses, and although at the time you’ve got something yourself, you realise how lucky you are that what you have is, although not ideal, it’s okay, it’s treatable,” he said.

He encourages people to be proactive with their health, and not to ignore things.

An Australian rules football player celebrates a goal.

At 25, Jake Waterman could be a key player for the West Coast Eagles in 2024 if he can stay healthy.(AAP Image: Dave Hunt)

“Don’t be stubborn, because the littlest things can mean the biggest things,” he said.

“I tried to sort of ignore my bodily feelings and didn’t want to listen to what they were telling me.

“‘I’m so lucky that I’ve got medical experts at the push of a button to come and help me and do whatever they can for me.

“So to any person out there that might be experiencing something gut-wise, get online, there’s plenty of websites that explain the IBDs and stuff like that and get some medical advice.”

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Author: Russell White