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The Olympians who achieved success in the pool despite being asthmatic

Mention the names Rebecca Adlington, Jo Jackson, Adrian Moorehouse and Karen Pickering and one thing immediately springs to mind – swimming at the Olympic Games.

And while all four swimmers did represent Team GB at various Olympics with a variety of success, they also have one other thing in common.

They’ve all been diagnosed with asthma.

Figures from Asthma UK show there are 5.4 million people living with the long-term condition in the UK and, on average, someone has a potentially life-threatening attack every 10 seconds.

Yet being asthmatic shouldn’t deter people from exercise such as swimming, walking, an exercise class or even training for a marathon.

Asthma UK advise that the condition doesn’t have to stop people from getting on with life and the evidence shows that exercise is good for people with asthma.

Jackson, who won a bronze medal in the 400m Freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, backs up that claim.

Although she has now retired from competitive swimming, she says taking part in sporting activity can help keep her asthma at a good level and under control.

Great support network

She said: “My asthma didn’t affect me learning to swim and it didn’t have an impact on my training or racing until I was a teenager. 

“It became a more serious problem around 2010 after I had a few illnesses back-to-back. I started having asthma attacks during sets. 

“I was really lucky because I had a great support network around me which really helped me through these tough times. I had to take some time out of the water and I started seeing an asthma specialist to look at how we could prevent the attacks. 

“I was admitted to a hospital where I started new medication with a monthly follow-up appointment which definitely helped me to get back into full-time training. I took this medication for a year and once I’d finished the course, I was able to get back to my full training routine. 

“It was a really tough few years as I missed a lot of training and competitions but I was really lucky that I had the support from everyone around me to help me continue with my sport.”

Jackson said being honest with yourself and your coaches were key when it comes to coping with asthma while competing.

“All of my coaches have been really accommodating with my asthma and have always listened to me,” she said. 

“Whether you have asthma or not, I think it’s really important to have the kind of relationship with your coach where you can talk to them about issues and ask for advice. 

Rebecca Adlington and Jo Jackson who both suffer from asthma but won Olympic medals

“I always made sure I had my inhaler in my bag so if I needed it during training I had it to hand and my coach would always let me get out of the pool if I needed to take it. 

“I also found it beneficial to get back into training gently after an illness or when my asthma wasn’t great. I’d just take it easier for a few days and then gradually increase the volume and intensity until I was back to full fitness. 

“As I got older, I definitely learnt to listen to my body and to be honest with my coach when things were getting on top of me. As an athlete, you always want to be on top of your game and pushing yourself to your limit but it’s about doing that in the right way.

“I still exercise now, even though I’ve retired from competitive swimming, as I think it’s really important to keep fit and healthy. I feel like doing sport really benefits me and staying fit can actually keep my asthma at a good level and under control.” 

These observations on the benefits of swimming are echoed in The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming report, an academic review commissioned by the independent Swimming and Health Commission. 

Amongst other things, the report found that swimming can improve cardiovascular health, lung function and breathing techniques, particularly in children with asthma. The hydrostatic pressure against the chest wall was also thought to be beneficial.

For some people with asthma, the humid pool environment made breathing easier although Kathy Mascarenhas, an asthma nurse specialist from Asthma UK, warned that some people identify chlorine as a trigger of their asthma. 

Kathy added: “The single most important thing is for people to manage their asthma by taking their preventer inhaler with good technique, as prescribed, even when they feel well. 

Asthma Action Plan

“Other advice I would give is to warm up and down for 10 to 15 minutes and have the blue reliever inhaler, and spacer if using one, easily accessible. 

“So, when you’re swimming have it on the poolside. If any asthma symptoms start during the exercise stop, take the inhaler and rest, and don’t start again until you feel completely better.” 

Kathy said a written Asthma Action Plan, which can be completed with a GP or asthma nurse, can help people to manage the condition by detailing when they should take their medication and help them to recognise what to do when they get symptoms. 

She added: “The completed plan can then be shared with swim teachers or coaches to help make them aware of an individual’s needs. This can be particularly reassuring for parents of children with asthma.”

Elaine McNish, head of health and wellbeing at Swim England, said: “Asthma is one of a range of conditions that is being included in our work to make swimming an accessible activity for people with long-term health conditions. 

“As part of this, we’re talking with experts to put together advice for teachers on how to support people with asthma, such as making sure a swimmer has their inhaler poolside and trying certain breathing techniques.

“We’re building on what we have learned from our project with people with dementia to work with partners to make sure people with a wide range of chronic conditions can enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits of swimming.”

  • A version of this article first appeared in Swimming Times