Her Body Won’t Let Her Take a Full Breath When She Runs. It Isn’t Stopping Her.

Photo by Will Edwards

All eyes are on Madeline Cowan as she takes her position in the starting blocks at the PIAA State Championships. And she knows it.

Her eyes squint and cut like a laser through the spectators standing along the fence around the curve of the track. She's nervous. 'Why is she wearing that mask?' everyone is thinking.  

The gun fires. Get out. Form. Breath. But not too much.

The sophomore from Johnsonburg High School is a regular on the track today at one of the most competitive high school meets in the country, qualifying in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. And as her competitors come around the bend and visibly huff and puff and struggle to feed their lungs with enough air to fuel them to finish line, Cowan even more visibly tries to stop air from flowing into her lungs, using instead an audience's confused and curious gaze that rains down on her and her baby-blue surgical mask from all over the grand stand at Seth Grove Stadium, the same familiar gaze that has carried her to PRs of 12.70 and 26.38.

More eyes, more energy. More staring, more speed. More air, more pain.

"I think of people looking at me, and it's just, 'Oh, they're judging the girl with the mask.' And I think by me wearing the mask, it's just, 'Okay, you're on the spot now,'" Cowan says, catching her breath on the turf after her 200m prelim. "And I didn't want people to think of me as, 'Oh, she's not that good,' so I push myself harder and harder and I set goals and I just try to do whatever I can do. It definitely pushes me because people are going to expect you to do horrible. Like I recently broke a school record this year in the 200, and I think that's when people were like, 'okay.' It doesn't really hold me back."

Cowan has severe asthma. If she takes in too much air at one time, it can induce an attack, and that's where the mask comes into play. Cowan wears it on the recommendation of a doctor to hinder the amount of airflow into her lungs.

Today, she's lucky. It's in the mid-60s and overcast--just right. If it's too hot or cold, she says, her breathing becomes much worse.

Her asthma first became apparent during middle school when she collapsed on the track at towards the end of a 400m race, prompting an ambulance to take her to the emergency room.

"We didn't know she had asthma up until that point...I was terrified," says her mother, Kerrie Cowan. "[Children's Hospital Pittsburgh] taught us a lot about the asthma and how to increase her lung capacity to breathe through all of these races so she wasn't ever going to be sidelined again. And I don't think Madeline would ever take that. If someone's going to tell her she can't run, that's not an option for her."

She's finally recovered and gathers her things after her third and last race of the day. Her season is over after not making it through to finals on Saturday--motivation for next year, she says. She walks off the track to greet the contingent of supporters there to see her.

Cowan, a three-sport athlete who also competes in soccer and gymnastics, hasn't let her asthma stop her from pursuing her goals. Her coach, Brian Hinton, says they have to keep a close eye on her though, particularly during the early part of the season when the weather is colder, and make sure she isn't overextending herself.

"She doesn't use this disability as a crutch. She embraces it and plows through it," Hinton says. "You always wonder if you're pushing her too much. In the early season, that's when you want to get your endurance workouts, but you get to a point where enough's enough and you say, 'Okay, no more.' She wants to do more but we won't let her."

Cowan says she hopes she can eventually compete without wearing her mask. Whether or not it will ever happen she doesn't know.  

But that's a worry for another day. For now, as the sun begins to set, she hugs her family, poses for photographs and celebrates another successful season, smiling wide and breathing easy.