Olympic champ Nicola Adams’ asthma saw her banned from sport before fightback

Mention British Bulldog to most adults and you will conjure a jumble of unremarkable, long forgotten playground memories. But for boxer Nicola Adams, being able to join in with the childhood game three decades ago – after years sitting on the sidelines – was as significant as winning Olympic gold.

“I’ll always remember that first moment,” recalls the former WBO Flyweight champion, now 38, who grew up in Leeds. “I was eight and I’d spent years watching all the other kids running around trying to catch each other but wasn’t allowed to join in.

“Finally, I was the one doing the chasing and I’ll never forget that feeling. It will stay with me for life.”

It’s hard to imagine the two-time Olympic champion avoiding sports as a child, but at the age of three, Nicola had been diagnosed with asthma.

Her mother, Dee, had been told her daughter should avoid running around too much as, for her, the problem was exercise-induced.

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“I wasn’t allowed to run around or play football, which was really hard,” says Nicola, who now lives in London with her girlfriend Ella Baig, 23.

Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. If an asthma sufferer comes into contact with one of their triggers, which can be anything from pet hair to cold weather, it can make their symptoms worse and bring on an attack.

Despite her early diagnosis, Nicola’s first memories of having asthma are from the age of six when an attack saw her hospitalised.

“I’d been playing with my friends when my chest started to get really tight, like I had something really heavy sitting on it. You just can’t get any air into your lungs,” she recalls. “All of a sudden, I could hardly breathe at all.

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“I didn’t really understand what was going on. I was taken to hospital and given anti-inflammatory drugs. It was scary because I wasn’t expecting it.”

Despite this experience and her fears of another attack, Nicola was desperate to be allowed to get stuck into sport, so eventually she and her mother went in search of solutions.

“It got to a point where I’d pretty much had enough so we spoke to a specialist to find out if anything could be done.”

Under close guidance, Nicola began doing breathing exercises to improve her stamina.

“I’d do them in the morning and afternoon to increase my lung capacity and slowly but surely I was able to run about and play with the kids, which was awesome.

“Up until that point, although I was frustrated because I couldn’t join in, I’d been very, very scared as well because I didn’t want to have another attack. I needed to find what I was able to do within my own limitations.”

Now Nicola is talking about her experiences as an asthmatic as part of an awareness campaign, Lung Letters. It aims to inspire asthma sufferers and carers across the UK and help them understand that with the correct medical advice and management, asthma should not stop anyone pursuing their dreams.

“I went from not being able to do anything at all to being able to do anything I wanted. As soon as I was able to run around I remember thinking ‘I’m not going back now’. I tried all sorts – karate, 100 meters, 200 meters then I got into boxing.”

Despite having greater understanding of her condition, Nicola still has attacks occasionally. She carries a blue “reliever” inhaler as her asthma can also be triggered by cat hair and nuts, though it is some years since she required emergency care.

“In the back end of 2015 I ate cashew cheese without realising it,” she says. “My throat just closed up and I ended up in hospital for a few hours. Thankfully attacks are rare for me these days.” As a child, stuck on the sidelines doing colouring while her classmates played football, Nicola never imagined she was destined for Olympic glory.

“Once I started working with a specialist and the doctors though, I was able to improve my breathing. In fact it kept getting better, all the way up to the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

“We did so many different breathing tests on Team GB and then adapted things to see how we could make my lung capacity and breathing even better.

“So while it has been a work in progress – it’s part of me and it’s always in the back of my mind – now I know my asthma and how to manage it, so my life isn’t defined by it and I have been able to fulfil my dreams.”

  • Nicola Adams is an ambassador for the Lung Letters initiative which has been organised and funded by Chiesi Ltd, an international research-focused pharmaceuticals and healthcare group. For more information, visit
    lungletters.co.uk or contact Asthma UK (asthma.org.uk)

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