By Brian Burnsed, NCAA.com Staff
July 16, 2012
Briana Wise's tormentor is a mere 200 meters away, plainly visible across the flat expanse.
She does not flee.
Instead, at the sound of a gun, she barrels forward. There's no hesitation in her gait, no fear encumbering her stride. Little more than 24 seconds later, as she knew they would, the pain and panic welcome her as she crosses a white line and tries to exhale. She can't. She tries to inhale. Her lungs reject the offering. The weight on her chest won't relent; it grows more burdensome with every step.
Those running alongside her — the ones she beat — stop soon after crossing that white line, but Wise presses on to the nebulizer sitting several yards beyond it. As competitors embrace, Wise can only find comfort from a plastic tube that sprays a concentrated mist of Albuterol directly into her respiratory system for 20 minutes. Without it, she would likely be leaving the track in an ambulance.
Wise has severe, often debilitating, asthma. Wise is a champion Division III sprinter. Though they seem so laughably contradictory, neither statement is a lie.
This fall, Wise will enter her senior year at Worcester State with a legitimate chance at a Division III national championship in the 200. After all, she finished second in the outdoor event as a junior. But before she has a chance to cross the finish line at nationals, she'll have to cross many more throughout her final indoor and outdoor track seasons. Each time she settles into the blocks, she'll know her tormentor is waiting for her — 200 meters and 24 seconds away.
"I'm determined," she said. "It's nothing that I can't handle."
That determination shone through during her junior year. Without it, she likely would've folded after two asthma attacks in practice sent her to the hospital and triggered a bout with pneumonia. For her times to improve, she had to push herself harder. Pushing harder meant spawning even worse symptoms. Despite the cost of improvement, she has shaved roughly two seconds off of her 200 time and now holds the indoor (24.40) and outdoor (24.28) school records in the event. In all, she boasts school records in seven events and captured several meet wins in the 200, including a conference championship.
At outdoor meets, the 200 is typically her final event after competing in a day's worth of prelims and finals in the 100 and 4×100. It's after the day's last 200 that she sprints through the finish line, unable to breathe, in search of the nebulizer that will lift that crushing weight from her fragile lungs.
"Bri is sitting there knowing how she's going to feel at the end of a 200 meter and is completely fearless of what's going to happen," Worcester State head coach John Muse said. "She doesn't want her asthma to be something that will hold her back. And she runs that way."
Wise first stepped on a track as a means to pass the time and stay in shape between field hockey and softball season. So, as a high school freshman, she ventured to tryouts unsure about what to expect. Could she make the team?
She set a school record in the tryout.
Soon, track wasn't merely a bridge between fall and spring sports. By the time she reached Worcester State, she'd embraced the sport and was talented, but not elite. The asthma had begun to fester below the surface during her senior year of high school. She'd complain of trouble breathing after races, but everyone does after a vigorous sprint, her mother, Diane Wise, assumed. But a doctor's visit before college revealed she had the condition. Still, mother and daughter weren't alarmed, the inhaler would stifle the symptoms, they thought.
But as she trained harder the symptoms worsened. As a sophomore, puffs from the inhaler occasionally proved futile. Then, one fall day during her junior year, the hindrance morphed into something far more threatening.
Weather in Massachusetts in the fall is fickle. Hot days morph to cold in an instant. On one of the cold ones — the kind of crisp autumn air that asthmatics dread — Wise and her teammates surged up hills. They'd have to do 10. After five, Wise did something that defied her character — she stopped. Something wasn't right. The normal pains of training and asthma had ceded to something worse, she realized. She couldn't breathe. She begged for air as alarmed coaches and trainers sat with her, hoping it would pass. The inhaler's efforts were fruitless. Soon her hands and feet began to tingle and go numb as the smoldering anxiety exacerbated the attack.
"I was freaking out," she said. "'What's going on? Why can't I breathe? There's nothing getting in my lungs!' It's the scariest thing."
They put her on a cart, rushed her indoors and called an ambulance. Her mother, Diane, who lived nearby, got the call from a coach. She raced to the school and followed the ambulance to the hospital.
"You panic — oh my God," Diane said. "I think that's when she realized how serious her asthma really was."
At another practice soon after, a similar incident occurred. Another ambulance ride. Pneumonia. Trainers and coaches worried about a relapse, about her lungs closing again under their supervision on a freezing Massachusetts night. No more running without clearance from a specialist, they said. Her mother and coaches, though pained, never begged her to quit. They knew she wouldn't — their pleas would only make her push herself harder.
"Briana has a very strong personality," Diane said. "She likes to be number one. So there was no [asking her] about quitting."
The specialist suggested a pair of solutions: Wise should rein in practice intensity when she began to feel symptoms crest and keep a nebulizer at hand as a failsafe. Coaches, too, became especially vigilant. They paid close attention to their star sprinter during practice and now often pull her aside when they notice early signs of another asthma attack, even when Wise begs to press on.
"She tries to work through everything and anything," Muse said. "She's such a tough kid and doesn't want to stop even when you tell her, 'Maybe we should take a break for a couple of minutes.'"
And when the weather gets cold, Wise is often forced indoors to run and train alone, for fear of another relapse, another hospital visit, more anxious moments wondering if the next breath would ever come.
"The kind of weather that has affected her the most are those cool, crisp nights where you have to tailor the work outside to reduce the risk of a potential problem," Worcester State assistant athletic trainer Kevin MacLennan said.
Before meets, Muse reaches out to the meet director and head athletic trainer at the school hosting the event to inform them of Wise's condition. One of the more stressful parts of a meet, Wise said, is scouring the venue for electrical outlets for the nebulizer and hoping one will be in the vicinity of the finish line. In a few instances, a coach has had to give Wise a less-than-playful piggyback ride to the device because she's so oxygen-deprived after those 24 seconds of effort. Once, Diane was close to her daughter on the track before she reached the nebulizer.
"I couldn't stand there too long to see her gasping," Diane said. "I had to walk away."
The track isn't the only thing that triggers Wise's asthma. Anxiety on the night before meets has forced her to lie awake, pumping her inhaler. She could be free of her tormentor if she chose. Without running, she might still feel the asthma after a trip upstairs, but the worst pain, the most paralyzing fear, are triggered by full exertion on the track. They could be gone anytime she desired. As a DIII athlete, there's no scholarship for her to lose should she quit, only races.
But Wise hates losing races.
So she persists. For another year, she'll demand the most from the organs that can give her the least. She'll stare the asthma, the tormentor, in the face and run toward it — toward the finish line, toward a chance at a national title — as fast as she can.
"It's still scary," she said. "But I'm not going to stop until I get there."