When Emlen was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) at the age of two and half and having read about the benefits of being active, we jumped on the exercise band wagon. Emlen took countless toddler “Intro to Sports” classes, participated in Saturday soccer leagues, learned to play lacrosse and signed up for swimming lessons.
Emlen loved his toddler sports classes. He learned how to play tennis, basketball, baseball, volleyball, dodge ball, golf and badminton. Basically, anything thing that had a ball involved, he played. He also really enjoyed the town’s soccer and lacrosse programs: practicing, playing games and being part of team. A natural athlete, he relished it all.
As Emlen got older, he joined the town competitive sports leagues. However, some of the symptoms of CF started holding him back. He does not like to get hot and sweaty. His friends always ask why he is red and has white salt streaks on his forehead after a game. Soccer games on the artificial turf were too hot. Once, during tennis clinics in 98-degree heat, we had to pull him off the courts mid lesson, shower him in cold water and then send him back out to the clay soaking wet. It was even worse with all the battle armor he wore for lacrosse. To recover after a game or match, Emlen drank Gatorade and ate potato chips to restore electrolytes and salt levels. His teammates had fruit and water. This was hard for Emlen. He does not like to be different; especially with other parents muttering under their breath about healthy choices.
And, then there is the breathing thing. As much as we would like to, for Emlen, we can’t control the air quality. Somedays are humid, other days the air is filled with pollen, and sometimes, if it has not rained in a while, the air is just thick. All of this affected him. We did what we could to support him, but how much albuterol can you actually give a child just so he can run around for twenty minutes?
While he was experimenting with the land sports, Emlen was swimming. He had lessons every week, year round. He mastered the butterfly before the freestyle. He figured out backstroke and breaststroke pretty quickly. He taught himself to dive. He joined the swim team when he was six. At his first meet he was a little hesitant, but with a metaphorical push from his coach, he swam his little heart out and placed first. That was it for him. Swimming was his sport.
Emlen swims for the Thoreau Sharks Swim Team and the Shark’s Bay State Team. They practice anywhere from four to ten hours a week given the season (the longer hours in the summer). Warm ups, cool downs, timed sets, yardage, sprint practice, skill building, he loves it all. His favorite exercise is the lung buster at the end of practice. With an explosive dive from the starting block, swimmers attempt to swim twenty-five yards freestyle without taking a breath. Emlen can do it. Somedays he can do it while swimming the butterfly.
His CF symptoms are always better when he is swimming. We organize his schedule so that he heads to practice fresh off his breathing treatments and vest. When he gets home, he announces how much “stuff” he coughed up in the pool or how much snot he blew out of his nose. It is pretty awesome. Also, there is no noticeable sweating, everyone drinks Gatorade and the air quality is pretty steady in an indoor pool. Emlen does not stand out. Until last year only a few people even knew he has CF. When Emlen is swimming he is in the hospital less, a minimum of once a year, if that. His lung function ranges from 95% to 105%. Also, he is better able to fight colds and infections.
Last year Emlen set the team record for the 10&Under 25-yard butterfly. He swam it in 14.96 seconds. He did it without taking a breath. Earlier this month, Emlen and the team participated in the Metro West Swim League Championship at Boston University. Emlen anchored the 11&Over 200 Medley Relay with Reese Stevenson (butterfly), Henry Lease (breaststroke and Emlen’s older brother), and Cyrus Tavakol (backstroke). They placed first with the time of 1:53:01. It is a new team record.
Emlen will keep swimming, for fun, for sport, for managing stress, as a social activity and, not least of all, for lung function. It is such a great lifelong activity and we are glad that we have found it for him. Exercise, combined with all the medically recommended CF breathing therapies, is what keeps Emlen healthy. It took some time until Emlen found “his” sport. While his road to swimming is littered with discarded cleats, pads, balls and sticks, it was completely worth the trip; it has led him to improved health and well-being.
* HERE ARE SOME WAYS THAT YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT EMLEN AND HIS FAMILY:
1. Check out The blog from Emlen’s mom: www.lifelineracing.org/blog
2. Find them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/lifelineracing
4. Find them on Instagram: Elizabeth_weld_hall
* If you would like to be featured for sharing how exercise has helped you to get better with CF, please reach out to me via social media or e-mail on the “CONTACT.” No matter how big or how small you think your story is, it can always help to encourage others