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Asthma, Allergies & Better Breathing

Diving into Respiratory Health with Maggie Mac Neil

Mediaplanet sat down with Canadian Olympic Swimmer Maggie Mac Neil to chat about her journey to becoming a Gold Medalist while living with Asthma, and some of the keys to managing symptoms.

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What first inspired you to go down this path and discover your love for professional swimming?

Like every young kid that engages in sport from a very early age, from the age of 8 I always told my parents and teachers that “I want to go to the Olympics”. I started competing the fall after the 2008 olympics, so some of this dream was attributed to that post olympic momentum. My family and I have always been huge Olympic watchers, whether that be summer or winter. Knowing what I know now, I had absolutely no clue as to the effort, hard work, dedication and early mornings that would be required to make this a reality. Originally, it started out from a love of the water at age 2, and grew with the friends I made along the way (first within my club, then the province, country and now the world) and nurtured my competitive spirit. When motivation wanes or I’m having a bad practice, it is the relationships and friends on my team that keep me going. So, in short, I don’t think either my family or I anticipated this would come from simply having a love for the water.

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Competing at the highest level of athletics has obstacles and requires a great deal of hard work – doing that with asthma no doubt requires even more. what was it like when you were first diagnosed with asthma? how did you cope with this early in your athletic career?

At first, I ironically had to convince my mother (who’s a physician) that I was having a hard time breathing in the pool and needed to see a respirologist. It wasn’t until months later when I returned from Singapore (one of the most hot and humid places I’ve ever been, other than my current training base in Baton Rouge, Louisiana) that I needed to figure out why I was struggling with the easiest of workouts in preparation for the world cup in singapore. When I was finally diagnosed, at the age of 17, I struggled initially to find the correct combination and dosage of medications for me to perform optimally. My best event at the time, the 200m butterfly, I was barely able to finish it, and the time was horrendous. This was particularly discouraging for me, as I worried my goal of making it to the Olympics someday may not happen if I could not compete my best event. So, initially it was emotionally challenging, however, physically I never gave up, continuing to train the same as I always had. It wasn’t until the next year at nationals in April 2018 that I finally dropped 0.5 of a second (which is a lot) in the 100m butterfly, which I always considered my second best event. I had plateaued in this event, not going a best time since the Olympic Trials in 2016, so this was really encouraging. By focusing on sprinting, I was able to achieve all my goals in the pool and I guess I have my asthma to thank for that. If I was not forced to focus on the sprint races, I doubt I would have had the success I’ve had.

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Today, you stand as a gold medal winner and a record holder, what are some keys to your success in managing asthma symptoms in a sport that requires strong respiratory endurance?

Asthma has hindered me in some ways, but I choose to look at it as something I am overcoming. Obviously, some days are harder than others, especially training in a facility without air conditioning in southern Louisiana (currently, it’s 35 degrees with the humidity hovering above 85%). However, for me, I look at the days where I’m struggling with my asthma, and I tell myself that by doing the best that I can (even if it’s nowhere close to my best will help me in the long run), as it is what I do on the hard days that define me, not what I do on the good days. Generally, it is crucial for me to stay on top of my puffers and other medications. If I forget or take it too late in the day I can feel it. This was a challenge in the past with navigating different time zones, as some of my puffers are threshold medications, so making sure I don’t take too many within 24 hours. Over time, I have gotten better at timing it out to maximize their effects, while not risking taking too many puffs within a day.

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What impact has the quality of the air you breathe had on your asthma symptoms? What has helped to mitigate this?

As I spend most of my time in a chlorinated environment, it is super important that I try to balance getting fresh air outside without exposing myself to too much of the negative environmental conditions (ex. pollution, humidity living in Southern Louisiana). My asthma symptoms can definitely be exacerbated by the quality of the air so I must remain diligent with my inhalers and exposure to chlorine and other pollutants. In my sporting environment for example, competitions can be extremely long, and usually you sit there for hours to only swim for a few minutes. Taking time to go outside and get out of the natatorium has been extremely helpful as well. Some pools are also worse than others, so limiting my time just sitting in these hot, muggy pools is also a goal. As I’m training in Louisiana leading up to the Olympics, I have not been able to try out Shark’s amazing air purifier yet but am excited to try it out when I get home to Canada after the Games and integrate it into my daily life to help me breathe optimally.

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