Before speed skater Apolo Ohno became an Olympic champion, he struggled against exercise-induced bronchospasm. A doctor’s diagnosis changed his career and life.
Apolo Ohno overcame exercise induced bronchospasm to become an Olympic speed-skating champion, Dancing with the Stars winner and an inspiration to fans worldwide.
The path to becoming an Olympic competitor is a daunting challenge for even the most elite athletes only the best of the best qualify for the Games, let alone win a medal. Now imagine being an aspiring Olympian with an untreated condition that literally makes it difficult to breathe during or after exercise.
Apolo Ohno is the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time, owning eight medals overall, including two gold to stake a claim as the best short-track speed skater in the world. He also suffers from exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), also known as exercise-induced asthma. An ailment that causes obstruction of airflow, EIB is something Ohno has dealt with since his interest in the sport began to grow during his early teenage years. Despite the physical limitations that he was enduring, Ohno began full-time training in 1996 and managed to become the youngest winner of a U.S. Senior Championship at age 14 with a gold medal in the 1,500m. His preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was going full speed ahead when team doctors informed Ohno that, despite his high-level success, EIB was adversely affecting his conditioning.
“When I was diagnosed with EIB back in 2000, I didn’t even know that I had any type of respiratory issues! I simply attributed it to me needing to be in better shape and/or that I wasn’t built for anything longer than a 500m [race],” says Ohno. “It was a pleasant surprise to find out that I was only competing at maybe 70-75 percent of my potential, so I welcomed the treatments with open arms in hopes of competing on a level playing field. In all, I am incredibly grateful to have been diagnosed and given the proper protocol to follow.”
Ohno’s new lease on life began a stretch of success that included becoming the first American to win a World Cup overall title in the 2000-2001 season and finishing second overall in the World Championships. He then reached the pinnacle of the sport with a stunning Olympic debut in 2002, earning a gold medal in the 1,500m and a silver medal in the 1,000m. Considering the relatively simple nature of diagnosis and treatment for EIB, getting a physician’s input can be hugely beneficial once symptoms of the condition begin showing up. In Ohno’s case, instituting treatment with an inhaler helped him take his athletic career to another level. The message he promotes from his experience is that the estimated more than 30 million Americans who experience EIB, many of whom don’t have asthma can not only survive, they can thrive.
“We all have limitations by our mind and our body; however, we do not have to succumb to these obstacles, especially in the realm of EIB,” Ohno says. “For those who have suffered or struggle with EIB,I know exactly what they feel. Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, tightness of chest and for me personally, an inevitable cough that lasted sometimes for days. It’s all dependent upon how severe EIB affects your body, but it can be controlled and we do not have to let it control our life. Every person deserves the right to play and compete or simply to be active.”
Of course, Ohno’s God-given ability and increasing devotion to his craft have always been key to him landing his name among America’s Olympic legends. “Every athlete must have some sort of talent to play at a high level of sport. However, hard work, dedication and motivation are all elements that simply cannot be discounted. Early in my career, I had a lack of motivation or drive to put all of the pieces together,” he says. “When other skaters in the international level matched my talent, it required me to find ways of being better; hard work and dedication are aligned with motivating yourself to be your best.”
Dealing with adversity and creating positive outcomes is controlled by the choices we make.
In addition to his Olympic success, Ohno’s career achievements include 21 World Championship medals,12 U.S. championships and three overall World Cup titles. But even as his competitive career winds down, the self-proclaimed fitness fanatic maintains an extremely active schedule that involves remaining in top shape while managing his EIB. “It’s such an integral portion of my day that when I do not have the time to get a great workout, I notice that my mental processing power is slower and not as sharp,” he says. “The mental aspects of a great workout last all day long and into your personal life, even hours after your office/work hours have completed. Being healthy, active and strong is an element to me that stands the test of time.”
Also a big foodie, Ohno’s healthy diet typically consists of salmon and other fish for lean protein and essential fatty acids, fruits and vegetables such as kale salad, and brown rice pasta with a touch of coconut oil. Maintaining his fitness and energy levels is a necessity to stay on top of his numerous office projects. These ventures include the Apolo Ohno Foundation to promote healthy eating, exercise and good nutrition for children, along with a 2012 trip to China and Japan in support of the Special Olympics. The winner of Season 4 of Dancing with the Stars, Ohno returned for an all-star edition in Season 15. He also assumed a television role in 2013 by hosting Minute to Win It, a game show he was a fan of during a previous run in 2010-11. That role helped prepare him for a return to the Olympic stage, this time in a broadcast slot as a skating analyst in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“My love of sport and specifically Olympic sport is so raw and natural that I am, and still get, excited just thinking about each and every race and individual athlete,” Ohno says. “I saw the hosting role with Minute to Win It was an excellent opportunity to do something completely out of my realm, but challenging as well. I’m not afraid to accept challenges and new obstacles. I’m not afraid of failing. A ‘zero regrets’ mentality is my mantra.”
Ohno constantly preaches the message that dealing with adversity in sports or in life and creating positive outcomes is controlled by the choices we make. And while the popular conception is that he has hung up his skates for good, Ohno proves as elusive as he is swift when asked if we’ve seen his final appearance on the ice.
“What do you mean ‘the last of my speed skating career’?” he says with a wry smile.
Melissa Jezek is Director of Publications and Communications for Healthy Living Made Simple.