As an Olympian vying for the gold, 34-year-old Amy Van Dyken barely had time to breathe. And in this asthmatic swimmer’s case, often times she couldn’t.

At 18 months, Van Dyken was diagnosed with all three types of asthma: allergy-induced, exercise-induced and infection-induced. At the age of six, she turned to swimming for a safe form of exercise that didn’t trigger her asthma. It took six years before she could swim the length of a pool. But when she won her first race, she knew she could beat her asthma — and other swimmers.

It wasn’t easy. Because she was breathing at 65 percent of normal capacity, Van Dyken was always armed with several inhalers. She says she didn’t have her asthma under control until she was 23. Throughout high school, she recalls that fellow teammates didn’t want to participate with her in relays because she wasn’t considered good enough. Paramedics rushed to her poolside countless times as she suffered one attack after another,though never during her races. It took strict attention from her physician and coaches as she continued to train six days a week for six hours a day.

But all that attention and hard work paid off. The swimmer with asthma went on to win six Olympic gold medals over two Olympic games. Four of them she won at the 1996 Sydney Olympics, making her the first American woman to ever do so.

Today, Van Dyken, who married NFL player Tom Rouen (whose last name she took as well), works with asthmatic children to live out their lives fully. She joined other asthmatic world-class athletes, including Olympian runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to form the Asthma All-Stars Program. The national education initiative was co-sponsored by five medical and respiratory organizations to spotlight athletes such as Van Dyken as examples of those who did not let asthma limit their choices.

Van Dyken’s interests and abilities have spread beyond the swimming pool. An avid hiker, she and her husband sponsor the Colorado Youth Outdoors organization to encourage families to spend time doing outdoor activities together. The annual Tom Rouen and Amy Van Dyken Celebrity Shootout is the organization’s premier fundraiser. In addition, Van Dyken is looking into working with Mothers of Asthmatics, a nonprofit organization that helps parents deal with problems caused by the disease.