Making a Splash: Olympic Gold Medalist Peter Vanderkaay Talks about Staying Active with Asthma

(May 1, 2012)

Peter Vanderkaay Asthma is a chronic lung disease that makes breathing difficult for millions of Americans, including elite athletes. Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. Asthma doesn’t have to keep you on the sidelines. By keeping your asthma in good control you can stay active and accomplish lofty athletic goals.

Peter Vanderkaay is living proof. Diagnosed with asthma at a young age, the world-class swimmer and Olympic gold medalist has clearly taken control of his lung disease.

As he prepares for this summer’s Olympic Games, Vanderkaay took time out of his hectic training schedule to tell us a bit about his first-hand experience with asthma:

How old were you when you were first diagnosed with asthma?
I was 10 years old when I was first diagnosed with asthma.

How serious is your asthma?
My asthma was mainly diagnosed as "exercised induced." It’s certainly noticeable but I’ve never had any dangerous attacks.

Does anyone else in your family have asthma?
Neither of my parents have asthma, but two of my three brothers are also asthmatic.

Do you know any other successful athletes that are asthmatic?
I know of many elite swimmers who suffer from asthma. In fact, there are Olympic gold medalists and world record holders who have suffered from asthma.

Has anyone ever told you not to play sports because of your asthma?
Fortunately, there was never anyone who told me I couldn’t continue to be active in sports because of asthma. It was always something I needed to be aware of, but with proper management, I could live a normal lifestyle.

Has your asthma ever kept you out of the pool or from other exercise?
When I was younger, before I properly managed my asthma, it did hinder me from doing certain activities. Sometimes if I forgot to bring my inhaler, I would purposefully refrain from activity because I didn’t want to deal with the symptoms.

How do you control your asthma on a day-to-day basis?
I control my asthma on a daily basis with the help of my pulmonologist. There are specific medications I use that work best for me in controlling the disease.

How many hours a day do you train?
I train between 4-7 hours a day, depending on which day it is.

How does the quality of the air impact your ability to train?
The air quality can make a big difference in how I feel during a workout. Sometimes if the ventilation system in a pool is not working properly, it can be very noticeable to me and others who have asthma.

Do the chemicals in the pool ever bother you when you swim?
The chemicals in the pool can definitely make a difference in the air quality of an indoor pool. If a pool has too much chlorine, it can have a negative impact on performance. It can also affect people who don’t have asthma because of the caustic nature of the chemicals.

What was it like to win your Olympic medals?
Winning an Olympic medal for Team USA is an incredible experience that is hard to put into words. The amount of work that goes into it is enormous, and to have that work come to fruition is an amazing feeling of accomplishment. I am very proud to represent Team USA.

What advice do you have for young athletes with asthma?
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because of asthma. As long as you communicate with your doctor, you can live a normal lifestyle. Use it as a challenge to make yourself a stronger person.

Good luck as you compete this summer to represent the U.S. in your third Olympics!

* For tips from the American Lung Association on exercising with asthma, as well as additional information and resources on this chronic lung disease, visit our Asthma web pages, or call our Lung HelpLine (1-800-586-4872) to speak to lung health specialist.