As a competitive swimmer who is in the pool for 15 hours each week, Elise Nishii-Kim is used to pushing her body. But, during an intense practice in the summer of 2016, with her heart pounding 180 beats a minute, she suddenly had trouble breathing.
“I was having shortness of breath during practice,” she recalls. “I thought I was just working hard and needed to catch my breath. It started to get worse. It felt like the air was not getting to my lungs, which is pretty scary. My head hurt, I was dizzy and nauseated.”
Elise, then 11, told her swim coach, Roy Staley, of her breathing problems. He recognized the symptoms as exercise-induced asthma, a condition he has seen often during the nearly 45 years he has coached Ithaca swimmers. He urged Elise and her parents, Ray Kim and Lisa Nishii of Ithaca, to look into the condition, which Staley also has.
Her shortness of breath only occurred during Elise’s most intense workouts and had never posed a problem since she began competitive swimming when she was 7, or in other situations. However, within a few months the condition worsened, alarming both Elise and her parents. They sought help from the Shortness of Breath Clinic at the Cayuga Sports Medicine and Athletic Performance program in the Cayuga Wellness Center.
At the clinic Dr. Andrew Getzin, Clinical Director of Cayuga Medical Center Sports Medicine and Athletic Performance, tested Elise’s resting heart and respiration rates and repeated the tests with her running on a treadmill to see how the stress of exercise affected her breathing and lung capacity. The tests confirmed a shortness of breath problem. Elise was given albuterol, a drug that rapidly opened her airways restoring her full lung function, a strong indication that Elise’s problem was caused by exercise-induced asthma. The condition is triggered when strenuous exercise results in faster and deeper breathing due to the body’s increased oxygen demands.
Following her diagnosis, Elise got a prescription to manage her condition. Within a month, she was competing in Florida at the 2017 Dolfin NASA Showcase Classic, the nation’s premier 14 & under swimming championship, where she finished 6th in the 200-yard Free, 7th in the 1,000-yard Free, and 10th in the 500-yard Free. Her performance in her 200- and 500-yard events continues to improve. Last November, Elise, who is now 13 and in the 8th grade at Boynton Middle School, won both those freestyle events at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Section IV Class A Championship meet held at Owego Free Academy, and qualified in both events for the State Championships held at Ithaca College.
She is ready for the long haul!