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Robert Encouraging Asthma Sufferers To Get Involved in Sport

Tuesday, 06.05.2003 / 12:34 PM / News
Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO (CP)-- Gary Roberts vividly recalls the difficulties he encountered during his first NHL training camp with the Calgary Flames nearly 20 years ago.

The altitude was higher and the climate much dryer than in Whitby where he grew up or Ottawa where he played junior hockey, and the unfamiliar environment played havoc with his asthma.

"The first thing we had to do was a two-mile run," Roberts recalls. "I was in excellent shape and had been working out all summer so the run should have been easy for me but when I hit Calgary I had difficulty breathing and it was tough for me to complete the run.

"I couldn't believe it. My new coaches thought I showed up to camp out of shape. I was terrible on the tests, too, because I could hardly breathe for three days while my body adjusted."

He overcame the setbacks to have an impressive career that continues to this day with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he wants to inspire young people with asthma to similarly become involved in sport.

World Asthma Day is Tuesday and at a news conference Monday in his downtown fitness club Station Seven, Roberts and representatives of the Lung Association provided loads of encouragement.

Roberts has battled through asthma his entire life.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images
"We don't want people with asthma on the sidelines," said the association's Shelagh Finlayson. "We want them right out there at the start of the race."

As many as 2.5 million Canadians have asthma, which accounts for the most school sick days. Sprinter Donovan Bailey is another one of the many high-profile athletes who have excelled in sport despite asthma.

Good cardiovascular fitness has enabled Roberts, 36, to control a disease he was told he had when he was five. It didn't stop him from playing lacrosse and hockey. His dad, inhaler in hand near the bench, would often try to talk him into skipping shifts when his breathing became laboured.

"When I was 12 I nearly had to take a year off playing hockey because my asthma was really bad," said Roberts. "But I started to focus on total health and decided that I would control my asthma before it controlled me.

"My parents and coaches monitored me closely when I was playing and made sure I was taking my medications as needed."

He has proved that it is a myth that children with asthma should not exercise or maintain an active lifestyle.

He has some tips: exercise indoors when it's windy, cold, smoggy or on days with high pollen counts; take prescribed medication 10 to 15 minutes before workouts; and warm up gradually.

Roberts takes medication in the morning and again at night. Before NHL games, he takes two inhaler puffs 10 minutes apart. He warms up before lacing up his skates and his inhaler stays close by on the bench should he need it after a shift.

Asthma is hereditary and it can come and go. Roberts' asthma disappeared in his early teens but returned when he was 18.

Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness and wheezing, all of which can occur after exposure to pollens and moulds, viral infections such as colds, exercise, or exposure to irritants such as tobacco smoke.

Cigarette smoke is Roberts' No. 1 trigger. Cold arenas also give him trouble from time to time.

"I'm lucky that most of the NHL arenas I play in are not that cold," he said.
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