Senior cross country runner Malia Nanbara’s asthma poses a constant challenge in her athletic endeavors. She compares having an asthma attack to “breathing through a straw.” Photo by Sal Ingram.

It feels like you are slowly suffocating.

If you want to know what an asthma attack feels like, Malia Nanbara continues, try breathing through a straw. Air comes in, but it doesn’t seem to fill your lungs.

“It’s the typical feeling you’ll have at the end of a race when you’re exhausted, but on top of that you’re having trouble breathing,” said senior cross-country runner Nanbara. “It’s a tightness in the chest and you can take in air, but it doesn’t come out.”

No one with asthma wants to experience an attack. But for UC Santa Cruz athletes like Nanbara who have asthma, frequent training and physical exertion virtually guarantee at least a few asthma attacks during competitive season.

A 2011 study by the American Lung Association said Santa Cruz County has grade “A” air, in contrast to Santa Clara, which received an “F” for its high ozone and particle pollution. But UCSC athletes with asthma still have to contend with pollen from Santa Cruz plants and trees — like redwoods — that trigger allergy-induced asthma attacks.

Nanbara did not anticipate this problem when she moved from Long Beach to Santa Cruz, where she expected to breathe easier in the cleaner air.

“I went and had an allergy test and found out I’m pretty much allergic to every pollen and imaginable plant that’s up here,” Nanbara said. “And I think that’s why I probably had some difficulty while I was up here that I didn’t really experience too much when I was down south, despite the poor air quality.”

Clayton Sorensen, a senior “winger” for the UCSC men’s soccer team, said when he moved from San Rafael to Santa Cruz, he suffered sudden attacks in the spring because of the proximity of the soccer field to pollinating grass.

“We’re mostly indoors in the winter, and then we head outdoors all of a sudden,” Sorensen said. “Being around a bunch of grass and breathing it in, it’s pretty tough.”

For athletes like Sorensen and Nanbara, practical and personal techniques have helped them to overcome asthma.

Sorensen — who has been playing soccer since he was six, and next year plans to play club soccer in Holland — said after he was diagnosed with asthma in the seventh grade, he began to treat asthma less as a disease and more as a personal shortcoming to be conquered through discipline.

“At some points in my life I viewed it as a weakness, so I tried to overcome it,” Sorensen said. “Sometimes I have to view it like I can’t really control it, but I’m the type of person where if I can’t do something to my full potential, it just means I’m not working hard enough.”

Because they are motivated to perform at the same level as their other teammates, UCSC athletes with asthma need to be especially aware of the limits of their triggers and know what to do in the event of an attack.

“The main reason so many people [who] first experience an asthma attack have a really strong reaction to it is that it scares them because they can’t breathe,” Nanbara said. “Over the years I’ve learned to feel when it’s coming on and then I either stop running or try to slow down, breathe in through the nose out through the mouth, hands on the head.”

Jeffrey Arnett, a coach for both the UCSC cross-country and track and field teams, said in his experience, most UCSC athletes with asthma require little assistance in managing their attacks.

“I think by the time they reach college, [their asthma] has been diagnosed earlier on and the athlete has figured out what to do and when to do it,” Arnett said.

Arnett said asthma is tricky because its severity varies from individual to individual and depends on the environment. This can be especially difficult for young athletes who want to push their potential, but sometimes do so at the expense of their personal health.

“For an asthmatic, [an attack] isn’t always a situation you can predict,” Arnett said. “You don’t know what might set it off, and if they do know their limits, you hope they’ll stay beneath it.”

For individuals like Nanbara and Sorensen who have been afflicted with asthma most of their lives, handling the disease is an unpleasant but manageable part of their day-to-day life. Both Nanbara and Sorensen rely on their inhalers, but if an attack catches them without one, they can rely on breathing exercises to open up their airways.

“Stop, breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth,” Nanbara said. “Most of it is about not getting freaked out by the fact that you can’t breathe, but slowing down your breathing. And usually a lot of people will want to bend over, but it’s better to put your hands on your head, open up your airways and stand straight.”

These may sound simple, but sometimes the best techniques are. For Nanbara and Sorensen, knowing how to breathe correctly is often all it takes to overcome an asthma attack.