Asthma and athletics might seem like they don’t mix. Most sports require fitness and endurance, and asthma—a respiratory condition that causes shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing—can make working out difficult. Exercise, in fact, is one of the most common triggers of asthma attacks (along with allergies and infection).
But the record books are filled with athletes who overcame asthma on their way to victory. Some developed asthma as children; others were already at the top of their game. Either way, asthma didn’t stop them from success on the track, field, court—or in the pool.
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This track-and-field star, four-time Olympian, and three-time gold medalist was diagnosed with asthma as a freshman at UCLA. She was playing basketball and running track at the time and couldn’t catch her breath after strenuous workouts. Afraid of losing her scholarship, Joyner-Kersee would duck into the bathroom to hide her condition from her coaches and teammates.
Even after a doctor diagnosed her with asthma, Joyner-Kersee didn’t take her medication consistently—and as a result she suffered a life-threatening asthma attack years later. "I finally learned I had to respect asthma as much as I would an opponent,” Joyner-Kersee told Sports Illustrated for Women, which in 2000 named her the top female athlete of all time.
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Amy Van Dyken
When she was a child, Amy Van Dyken’s asthma was so bad that she couldn’t climb a flight of stairs. At age 6 she took up swimming on the advice of a doctor, who said that the rhythmic breathing and humid air might help stretch out her lungs.
It was slow-going at first—Van Dyken couldn’t swim 100 meters until she was a teenager—but with the help of a regimen of medications (and despite frequent asthma attacks), Van Dyken crawled her way to the top of her sport. She won four gold medals at the Athens Olympics and collected two more in Sydney four years later.
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This bullish running back—aptly nicknamed “The Bus”—was diagnosed with asthma at age 15 after passing out during a high-school football tryout. Asthma didn’t stall the Bus, however. After starring at Notre Dame, Bettis was named NFL Rookie of the Year and went on to play 13 seasons in the league, winning a Super Bowl in the process. Through it all he kept an inhaler on the sideline.
Bettis once suffered an asthma attack during a 1997 game played in extreme heat and humidity in Jacksonville, Fla. "Imagine someone putting a plastic bag over your head," Bettis told USA Today of the experience. Bettis dragged himself to the sidelines, was treated with a shot and a nebulizer, and eventually returned to the game.
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The marathon is among the most grueling athletic events known to man. Completing one is difficult, winning one is very difficult, and winning one with asthma is near impossible.
But that’s what British long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe has done—seven times. The current world record holder in the marathon, Radcliffe was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma as a teenager, shortly after she began training seriously.
In addition to being a cross-dresser, ex-husband of Carmen Electra, ex-boyfriend of Madonna, and all-around bad boy, Dennis Rodman is a pretty good basketball player. Asthma didn't stop him from playing 14 seasons in the NBA, winning five championships, and leading the league in rebounding for a record seven straight years.
Rodman’s accomplishments are especially notable because sports such as basketball that require endurance and sustained exertion with few opportunities to rest tend to be more challenging for asthmatics (compared to, say, baseball or tennis).
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Four-time French Open champ Justine Henin was diagnosed with asthma relatively late in life, at the age of 25. Henin—the top-ranked player in the world at the time—has said her asthma symptoms were brought on by a case of bronchitis (infections are a known trigger of asthma).
In late 2007, Henin announced that she might not defend her gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to concerns about the city’s notorious pollution. (Traffic exhaust and other airborne irritants can exacerbate symptoms and trigger asthma attacks.) Henin never made it to Beijing; in early 2008 she surprised the tennis world by announcing her retirement.
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Vanderkaay won a gold medal in the freestyle relay and an individual bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. He has been swimming competitively since age 7—despite having his first asthma symptoms (chest tightness, trouble catching his breath, wheezing) at age 10.
Now he monitors his asthma daily, but he doesn't let it hold him back.
“I remember being a little bit worried, early on, that I wouldn’t be able to keep swimming,” Vanderkaay told Health.com. “But 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.”
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