Apolo Ohno: The Golden Boy with Exercised Induced Bronchspasm

Olympic speed skater Apollo Ohno.

Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno

It’s hard to imagine anything slowing down multi Olympic gold, silver and bronze medalist Apolo Ohno, 30. But a little-known condition called exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB) nearly robbed the speed skating phenomenon from becoming a household name.

“I first started experiencing symptoms of EIB when I was 12 or 13. It’s hard to know exactly to what degree it affected me back then because I wasn’t fully training at that time,” says Ohno.

But when he was officially diagnosed with EIB in 2000 after doctors ran a series of respiratory tests, Ohno says he was both surprised and relieved.

“I didn’t know what it was or that I had it, so to me it was a big surprise. But it was also a pleasant surprise because the doctor said as a result of having EIB, I wasn’t performing to my potential. That EIB was inhibiting me and I was only performing at a slight percent of my potential as an athlete,” says Ohno.

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Understanding Exercise Induced Bronchospasm

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, exercise-induced bronchospasm is an obstruction of airflow that usually occurs five to 15 minutes after starting physical activity. Although this condition is highly preventable, it is still under-recognized and affects both aerobic fitness and quality of life.

Inhalers filled with anti-inflammatory medicines are a popular course of treatment, as well as measures that include increased physical conditioning, warm-up exercises, and covering the mouth and nose.

Getting a Handle on His Symptoms

“I had all the classic symptoms when training or working out," says Ohno. “I had tightness in my chest, difficulty breathing, and coughing. Coughing was a big part, especially when I would do 1,000 meter time trials. During and after I would cough, sometimes for days I would hack. I couldn’t get rid of my cough,” he says”

Ohno says his diagnosis, and subsequent individualized treatment plan, produced immediate results. “I noticed significant changes in how I trained and what I was able to do,” he says.

An inhaler is what Ohno has found best manages his symptoms. But he says determination wouldn’t let EIB keep him from becoming a world-class athlete or winning the coveted mirror ball trophy on Dancing With the Stars Season 4.

“I had some symptoms that season because of the rigorous training, but it didn’t stop me. And EIB doesn’t have to stop anyone from being a professional athlete or a weekend warrior,” says Ohno.

That’s why he’s part of a new campaign, EIBallstars.com. “I’m encouraging people to educate themselves, get diagnosed if applicable and see what proper steps are out there to control EIB,” he says. “I’m standing proof to not let EIB stand in way of hopes and dreams.”

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Looking Ahead to Sochi in 2014

Ohno says he definitely will be in Sochi in 2014 for the Winter Olympics. The catch is whether he’ll be there as a competitor or a spectator.

“I haven’t committed either way. I may be on the ice, but I’m not sure,” he says. “I always want to be on ice, so I’m always training. I stay active every single day and work out to try to stay in the best shape I can. I‘m very competitive, so you never know.”

The signs of EIB

The American Academy of Family Physicians says the following may be symptoms of EIB. If you experience these, consult with your physician:

  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Decreased exercise endurance
  • Chest pain or tightness with exercise
  • Cough
  • Upset stomach or stomachache
  • Sore throat

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