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The Peanut Section

Skiier Steve Omischl Lives with Peanut Allergy

The Olympic Games in Vancouver are freestyle skiier Steve Omischl’s big chance to snag Olympic Gold – and on the Canadian’s home turf. Omischl is a four-time world champ, but Olympic victory is the one honour that’s so far eluded him.

Allergic Living has followed the aerialist, who has peanut allergy and asthma, with interest. Following is our profile from the magazine.

Air of a Winner – Canada’s peanut-allergic freestyle ski champion.

It was the day before the final World Cup freestyle skiing event of the 2007/08 season in Davos, Switzerland. Steve Omischl, a top-ranked Canadian aerials competitor, bought a bun and cheese from a store. He took one bite and sensed the weird taste that he gets when he accidentally eats peanuts. But at first he dismissed that likelihood.

Half an hour later, he was anaphylaxing, his arms and chest covered in a rash, his face swelling and his throat starting to constrict. He raced back to the hotel with the team doctor, who gave him a shot of adrenalin and Benadryl. “While it was happening I was thinking, ‘I hope I’m going to be fine tomorrow,’” he recalls.

The next day, the 30-year-old flew an extraordinary 12 metres into the air and executed three perfect back flips with four twists in just one of the two jumps he completed. The resilient athlete won the event and was crowned the season’s World Cup champion. 

The Interview

How did suffering the severe allergic reaction at Davos affect your ability to compete?

I would never take a single jump if I didn’t think I was physically in the right place to do so. Although I was probably a little tired, the medicine had run its course and I wasn’t groggy. It was one of the better competitions of the year. I guess it wasn’t much consequence after almost dying the night before. I was like, ‘This competition is pretty easy.’

With a peanut allergy, is the travel that comes with being an athlete a challenge?

It’s a challenge whenever I spend time in China because a lot of things are cooked in peanut oil. It’s not like you can really ask at a lot of those places, they don’t understand. I just stick to very simple dishes and try to eat slowly.

Where else has culture or language caused a problem?

I was surfing in Costa Rica two years ago with one of my teammates after the season. I ordered a chicken pesto sandwich not realizing that in Central America they make pesto with peanut oil. I had a pretty bad reaction.
We were in the middle of nowhere but there happened to be an ambulance close. I suppose I could have died, but you could die doing almost anything. There are lots of crazy illnesses far worse than this, so I accept it for what it is.

You’ll be competing at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. What does that mean?

I’ve given up everything in my life since I was 15 to go to the Olympics. I’ve won world championships and I’ve won the overall World Cup tour three times. The one thing I haven’t been successful at is the Olympic Games. To be able to compete at home at an Olympics is a great opportunity to finish off my career.

What do you say to young kids with allergies?

The biggest thing is to teach kids what to do if they have a reaction. With smaller kids, I can see why parents are protective. But once you’re 12 or 13, you have to take responsibility for it.

Growing up in North Bay, Ontario, did you dream of being a successful athlete?

Once I got involved with the freestyle skiing program in my hometown, I knew that was what I wanted to do. But before that I was actually a pretty sick kid with asthma. I remember some birthdays and Christmases being in the hospital with pneumonia or bronchitis.

You visited Ghana with Right to Play, an organization that uses sport to improve the lives of children. What was that like? Did it change you?

We saw some very difficult things; kids that don’t have much. All they wanted to do was play and have fun. We [he and other athletes] went to schools, refugee camps and social clubs and played with the kids. The games teach them about including women in sport and in life, keeping their environment clean and being nice to others. You could tell the kids were taking in what the games were trying to teach them.

It’s tough with competing and traveling, but I’d go back to Africa and help if there was time. The experience hasn’t changed anything other than making me a heck of a lot more appreciative of what I have, and the opportunities I’ve been given in life. I’m very fortunate.

From the Winter 2009 issue of Allergic Living magazine.
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