“If I hadn’t taken part in sports, my life would've been completely different."

Her asthma is triggered by chlorine, but that didn’t stop Karen Pickering MBE from becoming a world-class swimmer.

Karen Pickering MBE standing in a swimming pool“I remember running around with one of my school friends when suddenly I couldn’t breathe. My friend said, ‘That happens to my brother, and he’s got asthma’. I went home and told my mum, and was diagnosed soon after."

Getting the right support 

“Aged 11, my school asked me what I wanted to do when I was older. I said I wanted to go to the Olympics - and my parents never gave me any reason to believe that I couldn’t if that’s what I wanted.

"No-one ever made a big deal about my asthma - it was just something I had and I got on with it. They didn’t act like it was anything special, so neither did I. I feel so lucky that my parents supported me, and I wish everyone had the same opportunities. 

“Even though swimming can sometimes trigger my asthma, day-to-day I have a better quality of life because my lungs are so much stronger than they would be otherwise.” 

An incredible career 

“I’d keep an inhaler at the end of the lane while I was training, and frequently had to take it. Sometimes it was a struggle. I’d get used to the chemicals in the pools I trained in all the time, but if I went to another pool, where the chemicals were different, I would really wheeze. 

“In my career I picked up 13 Commonwealth medals – more than any other English woman, in any sport. But let’s face it, even the best athletes in the world have lost more races than they’ve won. You have to learn not only how to lose but how to win gracefully. There’s nothing worse than a big-headed winner!” 

Inspiring others

“Now I’ve retired from competition, I work as a commentator for BBC Radio 5 Live and Channel 4. I’ve established a swim school to share my passion for the sport with others, and a foundation to help children who couldn’t afford lessons. 

“If I hadn’t taken part in sports, my life would've been completely different. I’ve benefited so much from swimming, and I see so many people doing the same. It’s not just about being an elite athlete. Playing sport – even if you’re not that great at it - can open so many doors. 

“The one thing that’s always irritated me is people thinking that swimming’s boring. People say: ‘How do you swim every day? It’s so boring going up and down the pool.’ But there’s so much more to swimming that people don’t appreciate. I want to show them how to structure a session properly and have fun!”