Lee battles Big Ten, asthma

Jim Schortemeyer

Living with asthma can be frustrating for anyone, but competing in sports takes it to a new level.
Some cases are occasional, and only require a quick breath from an inhaler. And then there’s the case of Minnesota women’s soccer player Nicole Lee.
Lee, the leading scorer in the Big Ten, has a severe case of asthma. But she barely wants to acknowledge a problem.
“It’s not something I like to talk about because I have to deal with it every day,” Lee said. “I don’t like the attention it draws.”
It’s not Lee’s asthma that’s been drawing attention, but her scoring. She leads the Big Ten with 29 points, is second in goals, and on Monday earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Team doctor David Wang says that it’s not unusual for high-level athletes to have asthma.
“In the Olympics, 11 percent of athletes have had asthma, and in Atlanta it was 16 percent,” Wang said. “What is unusual is that hers is a pretty severe case.”
That case reared its head three weeks ago, at a team dinner the night before a game with rival Michigan in Ann Arbor.
At dinner, Lee had an attack. At first she tried to control the problem by herself, but when her medicine failed she was taken to the hospital. Lee was in the emergency room with coaches and doctors until 3 a.m.
As the Gophers took the field at 1 p.m., Lee was running with her team, but wasn’t 100 percent better.
“Not even close,” Lee said.
Why did she play?
“Because it was Michigan, and a really important game for us,” Lee said. “I’d have to be on my deathbed before I wouldn’t go out on the field.”
Lee has started all but six games in her 57 games with Minnesota. She is able to play only because of the human chemical adrenalin, which flows into her lungs during activity and naturally helps to keep them open.
Practice is another story. Minnesota coach Sue Montagne admits she gets nervous watching Lee run 100-yard sprints.
“She’ll run them until she’s literally about to keel over,” Montagne said. “Sometimes she scares me, because she works so hard, that I’m afraid she’ll pass out.”
Gophers coaches and players have taken a hands-off approach when it comes to talking with Lee about her asthma.
“She doesn’t talk about it much, because I think she wants to deal with it privately,” Montagne said. “She doesn’t want it to rule her life.”
It certainly doesn’t rule her soccer game. Lee’s quickness and ball control make her one of the most potent offensive threats in the Big Ten.
“She keeps the ball so close to her foot that they don’t know where she’s going to go,” Montagne said. “We get excited when she has the ball at her feet and some space, because you know she’s going to get a shot off.”
So far those shots have been right on target. Lee ranks fourth in career points at Minnesota with 80. With just four more points she’ll pass Erin Hussey and move into third place. Another high-scoring season next year and she could pass Jennifer McElmury, who has 124 points.
People close to Lee say they’ve been impressed with her, but not just for her scoring prowess. Whether it’s her father Joe sitting in the top row of the stands at the soccer field or the team doctor discussing her asthma, everyone admires her work ethic.
“She’s highly motivated, and highly competitive, and it’s important to her that she’s successful at the level she has,” Wang said. “Nicole’s a very special person.”
And as can be the way in sports, the personality traits Wang admires are reflected in Lee’s style of play.
“She’s a tireless worker,” Montagne said. “She gets pushed around and knocked down and she just keeps working for the ball to get a shot.”