Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time, was practicing for the 2002 Games when he learned he had exercise-induced asthma. It obviously didn’t destroy the sporting career of the eight-time medalist. And now he is the public face of a program to raise awareness about the condition, which affects more than 30 million Americans.
Short-track speed skating doesn’t seem like the most popular choice of sports for kids. How did you get into it?
I was always active as a child. My dad tried to place me in every sport imaginable. I had so much energy he wanted to push me in a direction where that energy was used appropriately to keep me out of trouble and focused while I was in school. I was an avid swimmer and was state champ at age 12. I wanted to play football or be a boxer, but my dad didn’t want that because of all the impact. But in 1992 I was watching short track, and it was obscure, but they looked like superheroes in their tight outfits, and I thought it was amazing. I wanted to do that. I made the national team at 14.
Tell me about your competitive spirit. Did you always quest to win, or did it develop over time? And how did you stay focused in such a continually competitive environment?
I’d always been competitive when it came to crunch time. I always wanted to win, and I’ve been a racer at heart. Being next to someone else pushes me to go above and beyond what I thought possible.
I never had one day that I didn’t want to be on the ice, because I always had an objective for that day. I had a rigorous plan and schedule in place that I had to adhere to. It was a step-by-step process of slowly but surely inching toward the Olympic Games and using every day as a series of goals to be accomplished.
In 2007 you won “Dancing With the Stars.” Did your competitive spirit spur you on in that show?
Anything that I do I pursue 110%. I can’t help but give it my all. And it was great to win because it was something that was totally out of my element. I was being judged for the first time in my life, not just questing for the fastest time.
I think my athletic conditioning helped. You dance with your partner six to 12 hours a day, every day. The training made that easier to tolerate.
Tell me about the exercised-induced bronchospasm and how it affected you.
It somewhat came out of the blue. I was diagnosed in 2000. I’d already been competing but didn’t even know I had it until the team doctors told me. A lot of the symptoms I had I attributed to me just training hard every day. I had tightness of my chest, difficulty breathing and decreased endurance. The coughing was an issue as well. I’m using an inhaler now, and it works as a preventive measure. It boosted my confidence because then I knew I could work at the best of my ability.
You’re the face of an awareness program for exercise-induced bronchospasm, or EIB. What’s it about?
About 30 million Americans have EIB and don’t even know it. The program is called EIB All Stars (www.EIBAllStars.com), and we want to encourage people to go to the website to get more educated about what it is. There is a contest running until Feb. 18 for people to tell about how it has affected their lives, and the winner is flown to L.A. to have dinner with me.
We want to encourage people to effectively reach for their physical activity goals. I love seeing people who are active and want to help promote that. I’m proof that you don’t have to let something like this hold you back.