Asthma isn’t a barrier to staying active and fit. Learn about famous athletes who didn’t let asthma stop them from breaking records and reaching gold.
Elite athletes need a robust supply of oxygen during their competitions. And asthma symptoms like wheezing and coughing might seem like they would hinder someone from training and performing at their peak.
For many athletes, an asthma diagnosis does not have to be career-ending news. In fact, 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 26.5 million people in the United States living with asthma.
The world-renowned soccer star and heartthrob wasn’t initially public about having 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 includes six Premier League titles, two MLS Cup wins, and one win in the UEFA Champions League.
As a UCLA basketball and track athlete, Jackie Joyner-Kersee received 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.
Regarded as one of the best male divers in history, Louganis didn’t let asthma get in his way. He won five Olympic medals, five World Championship titles, and 47 national titles. This is more than any other diver in U.S. history, and to this day, Louganis’ records remain unbroken.
Diagnosed with asthma and allergies as a child, 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.
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 exercise-induced asthma (EIA), now known as exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB).
However, the diagnosis didn’t stop Radcliffe from lacing up her running shoes. According to an interview in The Guardian, even her doctor at the time told her, “This isn’t going to stop you doing any of your sport, you’re just going to have to learn to control it.”
She has since completed four separate Olympic Games and won gold in the women’s marathon at the World Championships in 2005. She held the world record for the women’s marathon for 16 years until Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei beat it in 2019.
Football players sometimes face tough opponents off the field, too. Former Pittsburgh Steeler and Super Bowl champion Jerome Bettis received his asthma diagnosis 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.”
Peter Vanderkaay has swum alongside and competed with one of the greatest U.S. 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 years old, he began experiencing asthmatic symptoms and later received an EIB diagnosis.
“I never thought I’d be in this position growing up. It was never something I talked about, or my family talked about. It’s been a blessing to be at this level,” Vanderkaay said in an interview, discussing his path to swimming at an elite level. Though, according to his mother, once Vanderkaay has his mind set on a goal, he’s going to do whatever it takes to accomplish it — asthma or not.
As a young child, Amy Van Dyken received an EIB diagnosis. 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 6 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.
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 held the title of world record holder for the 400-meter individual medley for 8 years — longer than any other swimmer in history.
As these famous athletes can attest, an asthma diagnosis is not the end of the road for your competitive dreams. In fact, it’s fairly common to have asthma induced by exercise. It is estimated that about 90% 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’re susceptible, this air triggers your airways to narrow and cause airflow obstruction.
Environmental triggers like 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 start within 3 minutes of starting a workout, peak within 10 to 15 minutes, and resolve after stopping exercise.
It’s important to diagnose EIB so that proper management can be started. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
As an athlete with asthma, here are some preventive measures for EIB to help you participate in your sport. However, should you feel symptoms worsening, consult your doctor for further treatment.
The keys to competing in sports while living with asthma are:
- learning how to manage your asthma
- taking steps to prevent an asthma attack
- identifying and avoiding potential triggers
- treating symptoms when they occur
Even though exercise may be a trigger, staying active can help manage your asthma by improving lung function, reducing symptoms, and boosting quality of life.
Asthma does not have to stop you from exercising. If you have asthma, work with your doctor to learn your body’s limits. With proper exercise and management, you can be as active as you like.