July 20th, 2024

Olympic butterfly champion Maggie Mac Neil manages asthma en route to Paris

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on December 12, 2023.

Canada's Maggie Mac Neil shows off her medal haul at the conclusion of the swimming competition at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Heat and chlorine are not swimmer Mac Neil's friends. The reigning Olympic champion in the women's 100-metre butterfly has navigated both since the Canadian was diagnosed with sports-induced asthma as a teenager.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Heat and chlorine are not swimmer Maggie Mac Neil’s friends.

The reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 100-metre butterfly has navigated both since the Canadian was diagnosed with sports-induced asthma as a teenager.

Mac Neil’s strategies will be put to the test again at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, where the athletes’ village won’t have air conditioning and where temperatures can soar to over 40 degrees Celsius in summer.

“I know there’s going to be no AC in the village in Paris as of right now, so just trying to manage it,” said the 23-year-old from London, Ont. “Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

Mac Neil can’t avoid chlorine in her sport because she’s in the pool 20 hours per week.

Training at Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, where Mac Neil says the pool is the one facility on campus that doesn’t have air conditioning, is also an exercise in asthma management.

“I do have to be really diligent with taking my medications, puffers and inhalers,” the swimmer said. “Some days are worse than others. Living in southern Louisiana now, it gets pretty humid, hot and muggy, especially in the summer time.

“My coach, I’ve had him for years, so he knows what I can and cannot take, or if I need to get out and get my inhaler or just modify my practice.

“Even if I’m not feeling 100 per cent or I’m coughing up a lung, it’s just trying to do the best I can in that moment.”

A teenage Mac Neil gravitated to longer distances such as the 200-metre butterfly and 400-metre individual medley.

She was struggling to breathe, however, in 2017. It came to a head at a World Cup in Singapore in that city’s hot and humid climate.

“It was an indoor pool but it had vents and an open wall to outside,” she recalled. “I was doing pretty easy stuff heading into the meet, nothing too strenuous, but I was like ‘I can’t breathe at all.'”

Mac Neil saw a respirologist upon her return to Canada to receive a diagnosis of sport-induced asthma aggravated by chlorine.

“It was kind of discouraging at first because I didn’t find the right meds that worked,” she recalled. “It took about a year to figure out what I needed and how to get it under control.”

Mac Neil said goodbye to longer distances to embrace the 100-metre butterfly.

She won an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 2021, while also helping Canada take silver in the 4 x 100 women’s freestyle relay and bronze in the medley relay.

She claimed world championship gold in the 100 fly in 2019 and was a silver medallist this year.

“It’s my asthma that got me to focus on sprinting, which is ironic, because that’s what I’ve had success in the last four or five years,” Mac Neil said. “I guess I have my asthma to thank for that.”

Mac Neil takes medication daily and has a Ventolin inhaler with her in the ready room at meets.

“It’s mainly just kind of doing everything I can every day to make sure to minimize the chance of anything happening,” she said.

Timing medication while travelling to different time zones, and getting a therapeutic use exemption to ensure she doesn’t run afoul of doping rules, are other layers to navigate as an asthmatic athlete.

Mac Neil has become a spokesperson for the Lung Health Foundation, which supports people living with lung disease, in hopes her story is useful to others.

“I just want to raise awareness for kids are at the beginning of their asthma, or not necessarily asthma, the beginning of their lung-disease journey and show them if you really want to do something, you may have to modify it a bit, but if you work hard enough and believe you can, there’s nothing stopping you,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 12, 2023.

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