Famous Allergy and Asthma Sufferers: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

We continue our monthly series on famous allergy and asthma sufferers with one of the greatest female athletes in history--track and field star, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Life and Athletic Career

Born to an impoverished family in the rough town of East St. Louis, Illinois, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was surrounded by love and support. She emerged from hardship nothing less than a global sports star. As Kenny Moore of Sports Illustrated writes, "She was shaped by a mother who bound her to excellence, by an older brother who was an admirer, defender and soul mate, and by a coach who demanded the best use of her gifts and did it so selflessly that she eventually married him.

Jackie began her athletic career young. By the age of 12, she had already long jumped almost 17 feet. In high school, she excelled at basketball, track and field, and volleyball. Jackie also excelled academically. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class and went on to attend college at UCLA.

After her mother's death when Jackie was only 18, she got to know UCLA assistant coach Bob Kersee better. He saw her athletic potential and coached her rigorously. But there was something more there, too. Eventually, he proposed marriage and she accepted.

Jackie holds the American record for the long jump, and has earned three Olympic gold medals, as well as one silver medal and one bronze medal. She also retains the world record in the heptathlon.

Jackie's Struggle with Asthma

Diagnosed with asthma during her freshman year at UCLA, Jackie was in denial and at first kept the illness a secret from her coach and teammates. This resulted in several trips to the emergency room where she was treated and sent home with medication. She admits, "When I was treated with medication and released, I felt so good I couldn't believe I had a real problem. So I slacked off my medication, and developed bad habits."

This cycle went on for ten years until Jackie suffered a near-fatal asthma attack in 1993. The incident was a turning point in her life, and prompted her to go on educational tours with The Asthma All-Stars, a national asthma education program.

Jackie describes her struggle with asthma: "I came to grips with asthma because asthma was getting the best of me," she reveals. "My biggest fear was that I would have an attack in a competition, and I didn't want that to happen. And that was the only obstacle that could beat me. So I stopped looking at the doctor as an enemy and started respecting my doctor's knowledge and using him as a coach to help me. That's when I really started educating myself. I realized I could die from asthma."

From her own experience, she learned that embracing an asthma diagnosis and learning to respect it by treating it diligently is the only safe route. Bolstered by her unparalleled achievements, which show that asthmatic individuals are not incapable of fantastic athletic feats, she offers these words of encouragement: "Don't let asthma control you; you control your asthma. And never give up on yourself."

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