Asthma Didn’t Stop Canadian Olympian Curt Harnett
Education and Advocacy In this exclusive interview, Canadian cyclist and three time Olympic medal winner Curt Harnett shares his passion for fitness and health, the importance of letting go of self-limiting beliefs, and how we can all have a dream of Olympic proportions.
Mediaplanet: What made you become interested in cycling competitively?
Curt Harnett: I was introduced to competitive cycling by my high school football coach, who sold it to me as a way of staying in shape for hockey during the summer months. I had dreams of one day playing in the NHL.
MP: When did you know you wanted to pursue cycling professionally?
CH: I did have a halleluiah moment in this regard. It just happened because I was having the time of my life doing something that I was good at.
“Everyone has limitations of some sort. You have to look beyond them... There is something out there for everyone. If the limitation is too strong for you to continue on your current path, find a way around it or transform yourself in another way.”
MP: When were you diagnosed with asthma? How did you cope with it?
CH: A true diagnosis came later in my life (mid-20’s). I had always struggled with lung issues — effectively I have coughed all my life, sometimes to the point of bursting blood vessels in my eyes and coughing up blood. Ultimately, my diagnosis was a positive, because we knew how to handle it when it flared up.
MP: What kind of support did you have from your family, teacher and peers growing up with asthma? Why was this important?
CH: When I was younger, my parents spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what my issue was with my cough. While my general practitioner had thought it was asthma, traditional treatments did not seem to work. What my understanding of asthma did teach me was how to appreciate the seriousness of the symptoms in other people. I had a girlfriend in high school who’s asthma was more traditional and severe and we spent a few evenings in the emergency ward at the local hospital.
MP: How often and with what treatments do you care for your asthma?
CH: My ‘serious’ episodes are more acute than chronic. So I treat when necessary. That said, I have not had an acute attack in the last few years. I attribute this to a healthy, active lifestyle and, perhaps, age.
MP: Most would view asthma as a setback within the athletic world. As a four-time Olympian, this was clearly not the case for you. How did you overcome this to compete with athletes who may not have been affected by a health condition?
CH: The straight-forward answer is that I have above average lung capacity — but, ultimately, I never viewed my condition as a handicap or something that hindered my performance especially since I was a ‘sprinter’ versus a ‘marathoner.’
"When I was younger, my parents spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what my issue was with my cough. While my general practitioner had thought it was asthma, traditional treatments did not seem to work."
MP: Have you ever experienced an asthma attack while training or in a race? What did you do?
CH: I am overly versed on the subtleties of the disease, but my issues were more of hypersensitivity than restriction. So, my asthma flared up as a serious cough. I rarely had issue with breathing restriction. Being that my event was ‘combative’, my cough sometimes gave up my position to my competitor.
MP: What advice would you give to aspiring or current athletes who have just been diagnosed with a limiting health condition?
CH: Everyone has limitations of some sort. You have to look beyond them. I joke all the time that my math capabilities are what made me find cycling over being, say, an astrophysicist. There is something out there for everyone. If the limitation is too strong for you to continue on your current path, find a way around it or transform yourself in another way. “You can have an Olympic Dream, but you can also have a dream of Olympic proportions.”
MP: What does the future hold for you?
CH: I am currently the Chef de Mission for the Canadian Team for the 2015 Toronto Pan American Games. My role is to ensure that the over 750 Canadian athletes that will be competing here have everything that they need to complete and win on home soil. From an asthma perspective, I have gone years without any significant episodes, although I live with a light cough everyday.
MP: What advice do you have for those that want to live a healthy-active lifestyle and have a limiting lung disease?
CH: He who says it can’t be done is usually interrupted by someone doing it.