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Asthma: Personal stories

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun -- '64, '68, '72 Olympics

I never dreamed when I was a young man that one day I would compete in the Olympics, break three world records, and be a life-long athlete. These are extraordinary accomplishments, even more so because I have exercise-induced asthma. Asthma has been part of my life for a long time, but I never let it stop me from doing the things I wanted to do.

As a child, I was never good at sports. I tried out for team after team, and as each one cut me, I grew increasingly frustrated with myself. Then I tried out for the cross-country team, and everything changed. Not only did I make the team, but I excelled at the sport. That spring I learned the incredible rush of winning a race. I also learned that I had asthma.

I had never heard of exercise-induced asthma before. I had assumed my breathlessness during and after exercise came from being out-of-shape. Fortunately for me, my coach knew enough to take me to an ear, nose, and throat doctor. He tested me for allergies, and it turned out I had lots of them. The doctor explained that allergies contribute to asthma, and he cautioned me to avoid allergens as much as possible. He also told me to "steam" my airways open at night, since at that time (early 1960s) there were not many asthma medications.

Within 3 months of cross-country training, it was clear that the Lord had given me a talent to run and to run fast. By my senior year, I was one of the top high school runners in the U.S. and a member of the U.S. Olympic team. In just two years, I went from being an average high school student to a national sports star. The pressure (and I don't mean sinus pressure) was enormous. Suddenly I had to worry about pleasing not only myself and my parents, but my coach, my teammates, the press, and my country.

In 1967, I started taking allergy shots. I was 21 years old and training for the 1968 Olympics. I was seeing an allergist who worked with athletes, and he suggested I try the shots. That same year, I became the fastest person to ever run one mile, with a time of 3 minutes, 51.1 seconds. That record held for 8 years. I don't know for certain if the allergy shots helped me break the world record, but I know they certainly helped me breathe better. I have felt much better since I started taking allergy shots.

Things seemed to be going well. My asthma did not make me different from any other member of the team, except that I had to bring my own pillows on trips and arrange to get my allergy shots in other cities. Then, during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, I had a big scare. I had just finished running in my final race and was walking back to the finish line. I don't remember exactly what happened in the next few minutes, but I was suddenly aware that I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe at all. To make matters worse, I couldn't find anyone who spoke English. Somehow I got medical help and everything was okay. Looking back on it, I should have realized that I was in a city known for its high levels of air pollution and high elevation (7,400 feet above sea level). Add the intense race I had just run, and you have the makings of an asthma attack. That experience really shook me up.

I no longer run competitively, but I still enjoy running, and I still have to take care of my asthma. My wife, Anne, and I keep a dust-free home. I continue to take allergy shots and use an air filter. I'm fortunate that I can keep my asthma under control by keeping my allergies under control. After years of representing the U.S. in international events, I had the honor of representing my home state, Kansas, in the U.S. Congress. I am extremely proud of my accomplishments as a sportsman and as a statesman, and grateful to the Lord for enabling me to serve our nation. Everyone faces obstacles in life, and asthma is one that can be overcome by paying attention to your body and taking your symptoms seriously.

Jim Ryun is one of the greatest runners of all time. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives, 1997 - 2007. He has authored and co-authored two books, America Strong and Heroes Among Us. Ryun, along with members of his family, led "Team Ryun" to victory in the House division of the 3-mile Capital Hill Challenge.

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