Amy Van Dyken is a six-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming.
Jerome Bettis is the NFL’s sixth all-time rusher and an icon in Pittsburgh.
And 6-foot-11 center DeAndre Jordan helped lift the Los Angeles Clippers into this year’s NBA Western Conference semifinals.
What do these three elite athletes have in common?
They all suffered from asthma but learned to manage it so they could grow up to be champs.
Decades ago, doctors recommended rest, rest and more rest for asthma patients, resulting in generations of children who grew up sitting on the sideline watching their friends play ball. Today asthma management is much easier, thanks to new medications and a greater understanding of what causes the condition. With the help of knowledgeable coaches, asthmatic kids can tap into their inner-Van Dyken.
“They can go just as far if they have the same athletic ability,” said Dr. Brian Smart, a Chicago-area allergist/immunologist, as part of May’s Asthma Awareness Month. “There are always very rare people who have such horrible asthma they can’t get through it — but for almost everybody else the former is true.”
Asthma, which disproportionately affects children and adolescents, is a chronic problem that includes symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness. The severity of these symptoms tends to vary from day-to-day. Not everyone has the same asthma symptoms. A crucial tool for coaches is an Asthma Action Plan— a document outlining doctor’s instructions on taking medicines, eliminating asthma triggers and monitoring symptoms.
“What I normally ask families to do is to tell the coach that their child has asthma, and then to give them a photocopy of the Asthma Action Plan,” Smart said. “Let coaches know they are free to contact the family or doctor if they have questions. The action plan has been accepted as standard care for asthma.
“Also, let a coach know you want your child to fully participate. It’s been shown asthma actually improves with regular exercise.”
Van Dyken learned early about the curative powers of exercise. When she was 6 years old, she could barely walk up the stairs in her house without getting an asthma attack. She was 12 years old before she could swim 25 yards. It was another year before she could reach 100.
“My doctor said I had the worst case of asthma he’d ever seen,” she said, according to a Denver Post story.
With the help of her doctors and coaches, however, she became the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“As long as she was vigilant with her medications, she was under control,” Smart said.
Bettis suffers from a milder form of the disorder: exercise-induced asthma, which is triggered by vigorous or prolonged exercise or physical exertion.
That didn’t make it any less alarming when he was diagnosed at 14 after passing out and being rushed to the hospital during his high school football practice in Detroit.
“At first I thought it meant I couldn’t play sports anymore,” he told USA Today. “But my parents said I could do anything I wanted in life — as long as I followed my doctor’s program.”
Seven years ago, breathing was also a challenge to Jordan. When doctors told him he had exercise-induced asthma, he could have panicked. Instead he worked with his doctors and coaches and came up with a winning game plan.
“When they first told me, ‘Oh yeah, you developed asthma,’ I was like, ‘What? There’s no way. How do you develop asthma? You’re supposed to be born with that,’” Jordan, the NBA’s leading rebounder this year, told NBA.com. “But I developed it, and our trainers and my doctors back home have done a good job with keeping me on top of it.”