It may seem like elite athletes don’t ever have asthma. After all, athletes need a robust supply of oxygen during their competitions. And symptoms like wheezing and coughing might seem to hinder someone from training and performing at their peak.
Fortunately for the following athletes, an asthma diagnosis wasn’t career-ending news. These football players, track stars, and swimmers have been able to manage their condition and break records. Check out the profiles of just a few inspiring athletes who are among the nearly 24 million Americans living with asthma.
1. David Beckham
The world-renowned soccer star and heartthrob wasn’t initially public about his case of asthma. He was only found out to have the condition after being photographed using an inhaler at the 2009 MLS Cup, when he played for the LA Galaxy. After the game, Beckham said he’s had the condition for years but has felt no need to discuss it.
“Sometimes I have good days and bad days,” Beckham said, according to The Telegraph. “I've never hidden it but it's something I've had for a good few years now. I hope it turns into a positive because I've been able to play for many years with the condition. I know there are many other players who have overcome it, such as Paul Scholes.” Paul Scholes is another well-known soccer player.
Now retired, Beckham’s exhaustive list of honors include six Premier League titles, two MLS Cup wins, and one win of the UEFA Champions League.
2. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
As a basketball and track athlete at UCLA, Jackie Joyner-Kersee got a severe asthma diagnosis. Afraid that her condition would affect her athletic standing, Joyner-Kersee kept the diagnosis from her coaches. In an interview with NIH MedlinePlus, Joyner-Kersee said, “I was always told as a young girl that if you had asthma there was no way you could run, jump, or do the things I was doing athletically. So, I just knew it was impossible for me to have it. It took me a while to accept that I was asthmatic. It took me a while to even start taking my medication properly, to do the things that the doctor was asking me to do. I just didn’t want to believe that I was an asthmatic. But once I stopped living in denial, I got my asthma under control, and I realized that it is a disease that can be controlled. But there were things I had to do to get it under control.”
Joyner-Kersee went on to win six Olympic medals, including three gold, one silver, and two bronze. She was later named Sports Illustrated’s Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century — all while living with asthma.
3. Greg Louganis
Regarded as one of the best male divers in history, Louganis didn’t let asthma get in his way of five Olympic medals, five World Championship titles, and 47 national titles. Diagnosed with asthma and allergies since childhood, Louganis said he’s spent time in hospitals for severe asthma attacks. But this didn’t stop him.
“I spent some time in the hospital with pretty severe asthma attacks but my doctor encouraged my mum to keep me active to increase my lung capacity,” Louganis said in a Brisbane Times interview.
4. Paula Radcliffe
English marathon runner and Olympic athlete Paula Radcliffe began in childhood what would become a lifelong passion. She started running. Then, as a teenager, she was diagnosed with EIB. The diagnosis didn’t stop Radcliffe from lacing up her running shoes. “I don't think asthma affected my career — if anything it made me more determined to reach my potential,” Radcliffe said in an interview with Asthma UK. “If you learn to manage your asthma and take the correct medication, there's no reason you shouldn't be the best.”
She has now completed four separate Olympic Games and won gold for the women’s marathon at the World Championships in 2005. She also is the current world record holder for the women’s marathon, with a time of 2:15:25.
5. Jerome Bettis
Football players sometimes face tough opponents off the field, too. Former Pittsburgh Steeler and Super Bowl champion Jerome Bettis was diagnosed with asthma when he was 15 years old. In an interview with USA Today, Bettis said he was worried he’d never be able to play sports again. His parents encouraged him to stick with his doctor’s treatment plan so he could be as active as he wanted.
After a successful high school career, Bettis attended college and played football at the University of Notre Dame. He was drafted into the NFL in 1993 and played for the Los Angeles Rams and then the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1997, he had an asthma attack during a nationally televised Steelers game, which was his “most frightening experience.” But that day served as a wake-up call for Bettis: “Since that day, I've learned to treat my adversary with respect," he said. "And the good news is that once I did, I found I had my opponent under control."
6. Peter Vanderkaay
Peter Vanderkaay has swum alongside and competed with one of the greatest American swimmers, Michael Phelps. Together, they won gold in the 2008 Beijing Games. This is a remarkable feat that’s even more inspiring when you learn that Vanderkaay has asthma. When he was 10, he began experiencing asthmatic symptoms and was later diagnosed with EIB. He monitors his asthma and lungs daily so that he can continue to enjoy his time in the pool.
“Once I found the right long-term action plan, I was able to get where I am today. My doctor, parents, and I worked as a team so that I could continue training,” he said in an interview. “And when I got to a higher level of competition in college, I realized that a lot of athletes have asthma, and it's something they deal with on a day-to-day basis. It's not something that has held me back, at all."
7. Amy Van Dyken
As a young child, Amy Van Dyken was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma (EIA), now known as exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB). Her asthma is also triggered by allergies and respiratory infections. At that time, her doctors suggested she take up a sport as a way to strengthen her lungs and prevent future asthma attacks. It’s been proposed that exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect in children with asthma. At 6 years old, the Colorado native decided she wanted to be a swimmer. It took her another six years, alongside managing her asthma, to finally be able to swim the full length of the pool.
When asked questions about her asthma in a chat with CNN, Van Dyken said, “I usually just take it in stride. The thing about me is I'm so stubborn. If someone tells me I can't do something, I'll find a way to do it. And I do everything I can to make sure my asthma doesn't hold me back from doing something I want to do.”
She went on to win six gold medals at the Atlanta and Sydney Olympic Games.
8. Tom Dolan
It’s one thing to compete with asthma. It’s another thing to also have a separate condition that further prevents you from full and complete breathing. That’s the hurdle American swimmer and Olympic medalist Tom Dolan faced and conquered.
Dolan has asthma along with an unusually narrow windpipe, which limits his breathing. He’s only able to take in 20 percent of the oxygen that the average person can. But even then, he has competed on the world’s biggest stages.
In a personal essay for The Washington Post, Dolan reflected on his asthma and career saying, “I don't know if I became a better person for going through the health problems I had, but I became a different person. I realized that the path you take is immensely more important than the final goal. It was an outlook I wish I'd had my whole career.”
He now has two Olympic gold medals and the title of world record holder.
Don’t let asthma limit you
As these famous athletes can attest, an asthma diagnosis isn’t the end of the road for your competitive dreams. In fact, it’s fairly common for athletes to have asthma induced by exercise. Exercise is a common trigger for an asthma attack. It is estimated that about 90 percent of people with asthma have EIB, but not all people with EIB also have asthma.
During exercise, your body demands higher levels of oxygen. You end up breathing faster and more deeply, usually through your mouth. Breathing through your mouth increases the amount of dry, cooler air, compared to breathing through your nose. If you are susceptible, this air triggers your airways to narrow and cause airflow obstruction. Environmental triggers, such as pollution and pollen, can also worsen asthma symptoms.
Symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, can range from mild to severe. They usually begin during exercise and can continue 10 to 15 minutes after stopping exercise. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) says these symptoms will usually resolve within 20 to 30 minutes. It’s important to diagnose EIB so that proper management can be started. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
Preventive strategies for asthma
As an athlete with asthma, here are some preventive measures for EIB to help you participate in your sport(s). However, should you feel symptoms worsening, consult your doctor for further treatment.
Keys to competing with asthma are:
- learning how to control your asthma
- preventing attacks
- avoiding triggers
- treating the symptoms that do occur
- Avoid allergens or irritants that can trigger asthma symptoms.
- Wear a mask when you exercise in cool, dry atmospheres to help warm up inhaled air.
- Breathe through your nose when possible to also help warm inhaled air.
- Complete warm-up and cool-down exercises like calisthenics and stretching for 10-15 minutes each.
- Stay hydrated.
Even though exercise may be a trigger, it can also help your asthma by improving lung function, improving quality of life, and reducing symptoms. Work with your doctor to learn your body’s limits. With proper exercise and control, you can be as active as you like.