By Pico Triano
Photo Francine Bolduc
I don't always choose the path of least resistance and my choice of Physical Education credits in college showcased that. That's why my sophomore year I was up bright and early for Jogging & Conditioning class. The course had a reputation and there were only five of us signed up. One was taking it for non-credit and as the instructor predicted she dropped out in a pretty big hurry.
One of the first things we did as a class was a five level heart rate versus exercise intensity test. At level one I had the lowest heart rate in the class. The second level yielded the same result. On the remaining three levels though my heart rate shot up to by far the highest in the class. The instructor was baffled but kept it to himself until after we took the test again at the end of the semester. That time I was lowest in the class for the first three levels before I exploded. He told me he'd never seen anything like it in another athlete he'd worked with. Someone today who'd worked with people with my condition would have recognized that pattern. My secret would have been out. Those charts spell A-S-T-H-M-A. Keep in mind not many asthmatics were involved in sports like basketball or track thirty-five years ago.
I've never suffered an asthma attack (I hear they are frightening) and I, fortunately, don't have airborne allergies to worry about. In everyday life, it actually doesn't impact me much. I don't even normally need puffers. It will make colds and flu tougher. I am currently recuperating from a bout of pneumonia which is about as scary as it gets. Severe air pollution will also leave me feeling sluggish and tired all the time. That's part of the reason I try to avoid living in heavily populated areas. For that reason, an official diagnosis didn't happen until I was nearly forty. I've strongly suspected since the seventh grade but after being laughed off by a couple of doctors and facing the roll of a coaches eyes several times, I tended to keep my mouth shut. Where it does have a big impact is when playing competitive sports.
The test we ran in my Jogging & Conditioning class pretty much tells the whole story. There is a point where I am unable to take in enough oxygen to keep up with my rate of exercise. At that point, my performance will drop off dramatically. On the track, I might look respectable in the shorter sprints but there comes a point down the track where I will wilt. On the basketball court, I played in spurts. As long as I could get strategic rests I could keep going. If the game turned into one of those extended track meets though, the coach just might as well park me on the bench and forget me. My endurance had its strengths. If I could avoid spending too much time in the oxygen deprivation zone, I was a tough opponent. My cycling illustrates it even better. I can't win a bicycle race to save my life. The ladies will beat me. Yet I've ridden a full double metric century (200+km in a day), four consecutive century rides (100+miles in a day) which came right after a full 24 hour fast while observing the Day of Atonement. The day before the fast I also completed a century ride. Those were all done carrying full touring loads on my bike and were parts of tours. Not many people have that kind of endurance.
Smog or air pollution throws a big monkey wrench into the respiratory equation for me. The Niagara area where I grew up wasn't too bad at that time so based on my practice performances I was expecting to have a good time at the annual church youth track meet. The meet was held in Toronto at the Etobicoke Olympium right downwind from Pearson International Airport. I didn't know what hit me. I lost two feet off my long jump and at least a second and a half off my 100-metre dash. Those are the numbers I remember off the top of my head. It was the same thing in every event. Those numbers are catastrophic. I felt like a choker. I noticed a similar pattern when I showed up for college in the LA basin and took up residence in their famous smog. At home, I'd been throwing down dunks in a barn on a hoop that was a smidgen too high and featured a big metal pedestal I had to be careful not to land on. When I first practiced in the college gymnasium, I couldn't throw down a dunk.
Getting the official diagnosis all but came out of the blue. I had a stubborn chest cold and went to emergency at the Hotel Dieu in Cornwall, Ontario. When I laid eyes on the young very self-assured female doctor who came to examine me, I was not expecting to be listened to. At forty though, I didn't really give a crap what anyone thought of me either, so I told her I believed I had minor asthma. No roll of the eyes, no condescending chuckle, instead she says, “Sure, we can test you for that.”
The testing process wasn't complicated or involved and I only had to wait a short time for her to come back with the results. I'd be lying if I didn't say vindication for thirty plus years of non-diagnosis didn't feel good. “You have surprising lung capacity but you're right you are asthmatic and that completely changes how we are going to treat this.” I walked out with a puffer, a prescription and a note for my employer so that I wouldn't go back to work for a few days. Just like today while I recuperate from a much more serious bug.
So, do I have any regrets! Nah! Had I been diagnosed when I was young, it probably would have meant that some of my opportunities would have been limited. They didn't bring tanks of oxygen to the basketball sidelines in those days and I can't see any other way it could have been “worked” with. I might even have been denied the chance to play in some instances. I had to have my doctor fill out a full medical on me before I could attend college in the USA. I was a last minute acceptee when I did go. Would this have meant that someone else would have been given the chance instead of me? I'm kind of glad things worked out the way they did.
As a Canadian basketball player, I had a good run without even taking my limitations into account. I started playing organized ball in the eighth grade and played my last game in my early thirties in a USA vs Canada pick up church league game. Our opponents out of Portland, Maine were Northeastern champions. The Americans did win the game but I made sure they will always remember me. Along the way, I got playing time with my high school team as a starter sometimes and at other times coming off the bench. I went to summer camp in Orr, Minnesota and started at centre on the all-star team. I played three years of intramural ball in college representing my class. I held my own on the court. All the way I made a lot of friends. A lot of former teammates and opponents are counted as friends on my Facebook account. I can't think of too many players I wouldn't gladly reminisce with over a beer. Cheers to all of you! I had a blast.
I still have my cycling and at fifty-five I'm still in good enough health to enjoy it, except right now, but I'll recover. I'm planning to do at least a couple day trips with my youngest son this summer. We want to tour the upper and lower Tantramar river area, visit Aulac and hopefully Memramcook. First I have to recover from pneumonia and I'm expecting to take a month before I can handle any of that.