To those who witnessed her swirling grace on ice, Janet Lynn seemed the perfect mix of pixie charm and studied precision. At 15, she won the first of five U.S. women’s figure skating titles, and at 18, she collected a bronze medal in the 1972 Winter Olympics at Sapporo, Japan. One year later Lynn signed a $1.45 million pact with the Ice Follies and became the highest-paid woman athlete in the world. The young star never fulfilled the three-year contract, however. A chronic respiratory problem steadily worsened, and after doctors diagnosed her debilitating ailment as “exercise-induced asthma,” Lynn retired from the ice at the age of 22. More than three years of declining health would follow before the real cause of her breathing difficulties was uncovered: an allergy to wheat, yeast, food additives and preservatives. Now 29 and, thanks to a new diet, fully recovered, Lynn has resumed her career. This year she plans to make appearances with David Santee, Jo Jo Starbuck and other members of the John Curry Skating Company as it tours Europe and Asia. During a break in training, the Denver-based mother of three spoke to Susan Friedland about the sickness that bad baffled her and doctors for so many years.
Since I was 10 I would get a bad cough after skating in a program or competition. Each year the coughing spells got longer and worse, but doctors kept telling me it was just bronchitis. I remember in 1972 going on tour after the world championships, hitting 15 cities in 30 days. In every city my mom took me to a different doctor, and every doctor gave me a different medication. Nothing helped.
But I would always perform. That’s the way most athletes are trained—to get through the performance. You can collapse afterward. Instead of doing two numbers in a show, I did one, and my mom would rush me back to the hotel, fill the bathroom with steam and shove me in there to get me breathing again.
In 19731 turned professional, and during my first year with the Ice Follies I still had the cough. I remember skating a lot of the time when I was sick, and even when I developed a strep throat and viral pneumonia, I skated for a week before I went home to see a doctor and found out what I had.
I was off the ice for two months and came back for the Easter show in Boston. After my first return performance I started hyperventilating and was very dizzy. After four appearances like that my mom took me to a specialist, and he diagnosed me as having exercise-induced asthma. I didn’t even know what asthma was, so I said, “Fine. I have asthma. I’ll keep on skating.” And I finished out the year.
I didn’t have a hard time breathing in, but breathing out was difficult. When I would perform, the stage manager would be at the curtain to catch me when I came off the ice. I would just collapse, and it got to the point where he was giving me oxygen, and they would unzip my dress so that I could breathe. Nobody understood what was happening to me, and there was even some anger about it all, because asthma has a stigma. People believe it’s all in your head, that it’s psychologically caused by stress. I cried a lot. It was a very painful time for me, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t breathe.
In 1975 I got married to Rick Salomon. He was a child care worker, and we lived in Rockford, Ill. We returned home from our honeymoon a little early so I could get back on the ice for practice. I started skating and going to the doctor every day, trying to find a combination of medications that would help me finish out my contract. But the medicine didn’t help, and one day my body started shaking so badly I couldn’t drive home. I had to stop at my parents’ house. My dad came to my apartment that evening and said calmly, “Have you ever thought that you might ruin your health for the rest of your life if you go on like this?” That was the day I decided to quit.
I went bananas for two years after that. I had been skating since I was 2½, and all of a sudden it was taken away from me. By the time I was pregnant with my first son, Dustin, in 1976, I remember being so depressed that I wanted to throw myself down the stairs. Then I realized I needed help, and Rick and I began seeing a counselor. I was still hyperventilating, and just running up the stairs would cause my chest to tighten up. It even affected our sexual relationship, and that’s when Rick said he knew for sure it wasn’t all in my mind.
When I got pregnant with our twins, Nicolas and Benjamin, it was summer, which is allergy season. I was taking a lot of antihistamines that were putting me to sleep. I couldn’t get off the sofa, I couldn’t take care of Dustin, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to take care of the babies when they came. I told my husband, “If I have to live the rest of my life like this, I don’t want to.”
I began going through hundreds of letters that fans had written when I retired from skating, and three of them suggested the same doctor, Dr. Theron Randolph in Chicago. I started seeing Dr. Randolph in August of 1978, and on my first visit he asked me to list everything I ate and what foods I ate most. He also had me keep a diary of my meals and how I felt afterward. Then he tested me for a different food every visit, which was twice a week. If I got a reaction, I couldn’t eat anything with that food for the next five days, and on the sixth day I ate only that food. He found I was allergic to wheat, yeast, food additives and preservatives. He changed my diet, gave me allergy shots, and after two months I had color in my face for the first time in 10 years. By December I was cured.
The second year I didn’t even need the shots. I think I just cleaned out my system of the things that were toxic to me. The diet I’m on doesn’t allow me more than three ingredients at one meal or any single food more often than once every four days. Since I can’t have pasta and bread, two of my favorites, I have my own mill and grind rice or oat flour for cookies and cakes. In the summer I freeze fresh fruit, and I have a food dryer so I can make dried apples and apricots, which are great for snacks. I go to the butcher for meat, but there’s no acceptable substitute for cheeses or yogurt, which I love, and store-bought condiments like catsup and mayonnaise are out. Since I had to check labels so carefully, it used to take me two hours to do my shopping. I can tolerate more leeway on the diet now, but when my oldest son sees me taking a piece of bread, he says, “Mommie, you’re going to be crabby in a couple of hours.”
In 1980 I decided to join an aerobics class just a block from our house. I was anxious to find out if I could breathe when I exercised. The first night I made it through the whole hour. Then Rick started a martial arts class in our basement, and I joined that.
Dick Button, my former manager, put together a professional skating competition in Landover, Md. which he asked me to judge. It was so wonderful to see all my old friends that I started wondering if I could ever skate again. Dick asked me if I’d like to enter the next competition, and I decided to give it a try. When I first got back on the ice I couldn’t even do one of the easiest jumps. I had no muscles left, and the only thing I had going for me was that I was thinner than ever before. And I was healthy. Rick helped me devise a schedule of what I could expect of myself every time I went to the rink, and little by little I got to the higher jumps.
By the time of the next competition at Landover I felt fairly strong physically, but I had forgotten what nerves were like. This was the first time I had choreographed my own routines and picked the music, the first time I decided what I was going to do. I did my first number very well. Right after it, I burst into tears. It had been almost seven years since I left the Ice Follies, and I couldn’t believe what I had done to get here. I had overcome a lot of things, and this was my most rewarding experience on the ice—ever.