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Merrick mother-son duo finalist in competition to meet Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno
In October 2010, Heidi Hecker watched as her teenage son gasped for air as he crossed the finish line during his high school’s cross-country track meet at Bethpage State Park.
An athlete most his life, it was unusual to see. She knew something was wrong.
“I could tell by his face that he couldn’t breathe,” said Hecker, 48, of Merrick. “This had happened before, but never this badly, so we rushed to the doctor demanding answers.”
Her son, Austin Hecker, 14 at the time, had competed in cross-country running, outdoor track and wrestling since middle school -- always with some breathing problems. About a month after the track meet incident, he was diagnosed with exercise-induced bronchospasm, which causes the airways in the lungs to narrow during or following aerobic exercise, causing difficulty breathing.
Because she knew nothing of the condition, Hecker was determined to create more awareness by sharing her son’s story. She entered a brief profile of him in a national competition, highlighting his success in varsity sports despite the condition.
On April 16, Hecker was named one of 10 finalists in the National EIB All Stars contest, part of a national awareness campaign that highlights the accomplishments of people with exercise-induced bronchospasm.
The winner of the contest will receive a trip for two to Los Angeles to meet Olympic medalist speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, a spokesman for the campaign who also has the condition.
Hecker entered the competition rather than her son because participants are required to be 18 years or older. If she wins, Austin Hecker, now 17, will accompany her to Los Angeles.
To vote for Austin Hecker or another finalist, visit EIBAllstars.com before May 10. The winner will be announced on the website on May 20.
Her son’s doctor Melodi Pirzada, chief of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, is glad to see the family doing something to create awareness of a condition that often goes undiagnosed for years.
“There should be increased awareness in the community, especially when kids start to get involved in sports,” Pirzada said, adding that medication can help ease the condition.
“The problem is that many kids don’t tell their parents and they just limit their physical activities, which isn’t necessary. They can still do the things they love to do.”
Heidi Hecker said she now can see that the symptoms were there for years, but she always attributed them to allergies, cold weather or head colds. But she said her son always persisted.
Last summer, Austin Hecker ran 500 miles to get in shape for cross-country, all while carrying an inhaler and waking up early so he could run before the air quality worsened.
“Another person would have probably quit, but my son never did, so we continue to support him to not let it stop him from chasing his goals,” Hecker said.
A senior at Sanford Calhoun High School in Merrick, Austin Hecker plans to study pre-med at Stony Brook University in the fall so he can work with children with respiratory problems and show them that it’s possible to excel in sports regardless of the obstacles.
“It’s something about pushing your limits that I love,” Austin Hecker said. “You have to do something besides sitting and watching TV. And you can’t half-do something, so I do things all the way. I never let anything stop me from running or wrestling. Nothing.”
Both Hecker and her son aim to use their fairly new platform to inform others that just because their child has EIB doesn’t mean that athletics is no longer an option for them.
“Parents need to know that having a child with EIB does not relegate them to a life on the sidelines,” Heidi Hecker said. “They can do anything they want. Just be careful.”