Athletes with Asthma: Elite performers
How Olympian Susan Auch and other elite competitors have excelled.
Susan Auch’s entry into sports started, like so many good Canadian stories do, with hockey. Auch’s older brother Derrick would take her out to play on the homemade rink behind their house. There, in the chill of the Winnipeg winter and gliding over bumpy frozen water, she felt like a natural. Auch realized she’d found something that she loved and that loved her back.
Auch first competed as a speed skater in 1975, when she was 9 years old, then worked her way steadily through the local circuits and the provincial and national competitions. By 1988, she was a first-time Olympian, standing on the podium “feeling like my heart was going to burst” after winning bronze at the Calgary Winter Games. “There was something incredibly special and surreal about it – seeing all the red and white, the Canadian flags, hearing the enormous roar of the crowd, and trying to get your head around the fact that, hey, this isn’t a dream.”
The next decade brought even greater success. Auch competed at four more Olympics, and won two silver medals, at Lillehammer in 1994 and at Nagano in 1998. In 1995, when Auch was 29, the Canadian Press voted her female athlete of the year.
Auch’s constant companion during her skate to the top was asthma, which she was diagnosed with at age 2. The family doctor encouraged Auch’s parents to put her in sports to help strengthen her lungs. It did help, but asthma was still an issue in arenas where the exhaust fumes of the Zamboni could trigger an attack, and outside, where the cold air caused her lungs to seize up.
Medications were different back in the 1970s and ’80s – there weren’t the combined regimes of controller and reliever drugs that today can keep most asthma in check. Auch used a “horrible, awful spray that made my heart race. I couldn’t take it very often.” She would go to the hospital sometimes for oxygen.
Today, retired from sport, Auch doesn’t require daily controller medication. But she uses her Ventolin inhaler at the first sign of an attack and, “it helps me tremendously.”
The natural response for an asthmatic may be to shun athletics, which depend heavily on the lungs. But Auch wouldn’t have missed her experience and her championships for the world. She’s not the only peak performer with asthma that feels that way.
There are numerous athletes in a wide range of amateur and professional sports who have asthma. To understand how they can compete, Allergic Living asked Auch and three other athletes with asthma to tell us their stories.
These four have been involved in physically grueling sports – speed skating, triathlon and mountain biking – which take place on ice or in water or in rain, difficult venues for asthma that’s not fully controlled. What their examples show is that when asthma is “under control” – anything is possible.
Sharon Donnelly, 39, is a former triathlete from Ontario. Despite her asthma, she won three championships as Canada’s top female triathlete; she was also victorious in her triple-sport event at the 1999 Pan Am Games, and competed as an Olympian at the 2000 Sydney Games. These days, Donnelly is living in Colorado Springs with her husband, who is in the military, and their 15-month-old daughter. There, she helps to coach athletes in the USA Triathlon association.
On the phone, Donnelly explains that she never felt held back by her asthma. But she has come across “so many” parents who are hesitant about putting or keeping asthmatic kids in sports.
“Don’t be,” Donnelly advises emphatically. “Give them medication and push them out the door. [They have to be] supervised and knowledgeable about their asthma, of course, and on the road to being able to supervise themselves. But not doing this is the biggest mistake.”
Seamus McGrath, who was diagnosed with asthma at age 8, agrees. The 30-year-old mountain biker is a former national champion; he competed in the Olympic Summer Games in Athens in 2004 and twice medaled at the Commonwealth Games.
The Vancouver Island resident is now training six hours a day for an exhausting race-a-week schedule that will run from March to September. It will get him in the best shape of his life for the mountain biking competitions at the Olympic Summer Games in Beijing in 2008. “When people find out you have asthma, they’re really surprised that you can go all the way to the top,” he says.
Excerpted from Allergic Living’s Winter 2007 issue. To order that issue or to subscribe, click here.
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