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On Your Mark, Get Set, Glow: 3 Inspiring Athletes With ADHD

With sports stars like Terry Bradshaw and Pete Rose leading the way, these rising athletes have stepped forward to share their personal journeys with ADHD. Learn how an NBA player and an Olympic women’s hockey medalist have transformed symptoms into assets.

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50 yard line on football field

Michael Phelps is not alone.

A surprising number of professional athletes have attention deficit disorder (ADHD). In fact, an estimated eight to ten percent of all pro athletes have the condition, as compared to four to five percent of the general population of adults.

Many experts say a connection between ADHD and athletics makes sense. “Having ADD can actually be an advantage in certain sports for ADHD children,” says Mike Stabeno, author of The ADHD Affected Athlete. “While some activities require intense concentration, that’s not always the case with athletics. Everything happens instantaneously. You’re in there for 10 minutes, you’ve got five people trying to take your head off, three referees, four teammates. You need to take in everything that’s going on all at once. That’s how people with ADD go through life. So it makes sense that they thrive in this field.”

Of course, ADHD does present certain challenges. Perhaps the biggest, say experts, is that many athletes are unaware that they have the condition. “A lot of athletes have ADD and don’t know it,” says Eric Morse, M.D., president of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry. And no wonder, says Stabeno, himself the father of two sons with ADD. “Chances are, no one ever considered testing athletes for ADD,” he says, “since they are good at what they do. Sure, that pitcher may be a little flaky, but who cares, as long as he can throw a 95-mile-per-hour fastball?”

Among the athletes who do know that they have ADD, few are open about it. “They’re often scared of what it could do to their career,” says Morse. “In sports, no one wants to admit to a weakness.”

Despite the risks, a growing number of athletes have come forward to acknowledge that they have the condition – including Terry Bradshaw, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s; swimmer Michael Phelps, the first American to win eight medals in a single Olympic Games; and Pete Rose, whose ADD probably helped propel him to become the 1975 World Series MVP and to hold the major league all-time hit record – but also may have fueled the gambling addiction that led to his lifetime ban from baseball.

In this article, you’ll meet three standouts in the current generation of ADD athletes. Each has had a different experience with the condition, but all are open about how it helped them, held them back, and ultimately shaped them into who they are today. Their stories, struggles, and solutions are reminders that ADD doesn’t have to limit what anyone does in life.

Justin Gatlin

Co-holder of the world’s record in the 100-meter sprint
“Nothing could stop me – not even ADD.”

On May 13, running at an evening meet in Doha, Qatar, Justin Gatlin tied the world record in the 100 meters: 9.77 seconds. The time was a remarkable 0.09 seconds faster than his time in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens – which had been good enough to capture the gold medal.Since then, fans have hailed the 24-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native as the “world’s fastest man.”

Gatlin’s triumphs on the track represent more than victories over his fellow competitors. They symbolize a highly personal victory over an adversary that had almost waylaid his entire racing career: ADD.

Diagnosed with the condition in first grade, Gatlin would never say that ADD, in itself, has held him back. On the contrary, he says his condition fed his love of track. “Ever since I could walk, I have been running,” he remembers. “In class, I had trouble concentrating, but racing helped me focus.”

In high school, Gatlin won event after event. He was unstoppable. Then, during his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, he tested positive for a banned drug and was barred from competition for two years.

What was the drug? Steroids? Growth hormone? No, it was the stimulant he was taking for ADD. The drug would have been permissible, Gatlin later discovered, if he’d known to file papers indicating that he was taking it for therapeutic purposes. But he had not.

“Everything I had worked for was going down the drain,” Gatlin recalls. “I cried like a baby. They made me feel like a criminal and a cheater, when I had no idea I’d done anything wrong.”

Eventually, the ban was reduced to one year. Still, Gatlin faced a difficult choice: Should he continue taking his meds – which helped him keep his grades up – or give up the meds so that he could compete in track? He chose the latter. “After the day I tested positive, I never took another pill,” Gatlin says.

Off meds, Gatlin found it hard to concentrate. His grades plummeted. But gradually, with the help of tutors and a few simple changes (including a strict no-telephone-or-TV rule during study time), things improved. “When I needed to focus, I’d think about a college friend of mine who had told me she had ADD and was going to law school,” he says. “That stuck with me. It made me think, if she can achieve her dream with ADD, I can, too.”

Gatlin began competing again at the end of his sophomore year. But his problems with focus began affecting him on the track. “During one race, I spotted a promotional tent with my face on it,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I disliked the photo, or the earring I had on. It threw me off my game. That’s the only time I came in dead last. I was so embarrassed!”

Over time, Gatlin’s focus returned. By the time he was getting into the blocks for the 100-meter sprint in Athens, nothing could shake him. “In those few seconds when I was waiting for the race to start, I thought, ‘Please, God, if I’m meant to do this, let it happen,'” he recalls. “When I crossed that finish line, I was so happy they could have sent me home with a cardboard medal. I wouldn’t have cared.”

In 2006, Gatlin achieved another “first,” of which he’s equally proud: making the dean’s list. “I was surprised,” he says. “With running, there’s always been an award for doing well, but I never really thought I’d get an award for school.”

Gatlin is quick to say that not everyone with ADD can, or should, go off medication. But he thinks more people should consider that an option. “It’s natural for people, and parents, to want you to be the best by any means necessary,” he says. “But all my life, I felt I was less of a person without medication. It became a crutch for me. It took me years to gain confidence that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to, even with ADD.”

Cammi Granato

Olympic gold and silver medalist, women’s hockey
“My success in sports forced me to deal with ADHD.”

Cammi Granato cored more goals than any other player in the history of U.S. women’s hockey. She led her team to a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano and a silver at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. She even skated her way onto the cover of the Wheaties cereal box. Yet, off the ice, Granato’s life was a mess. As her fame grew, it got messier.

“My life began spinning out of control,” recalls the Downers Grove, Illinois, native, who is now 35. “The number of voice messages and e-mails I received became overwhelming, I couldn’t return them all. My bills didn’t get paid. My house was a mess. I bought every anti-clutter book out there, but they just became part of the clutter.”

For years, she blamed the chaos on mere forgetfulness. Then, in 2003, she heard a sports psychologist talk about ADHD. The symptoms fit her perfectly. She consulted a doctor, who confirmed the diagnosis.

“I’ve probably had ADHD my entire life,” says Granato. “Growing up, my parents called me ‘the Little Tornado.’ But in a house with six kids, my behavior probably seemed normal.”

On the ice, of course, Granato’s frenetic behavior worked to her advantage. “The sport doesn’t require a lot of thinking,” she says. “You just react. You’re in the moment. I was a natural at that.”

Granato says it was a relief to realize that ADHD was behind her inability to deal with day-to-day responsibilities. “I’d just assumed I wouldn’t finish projects or return calls because I was lazy,” she says. “Now I knew the cause, and could focus on solutions.”

Determined to get her life on track, Granato arranged for her bills to be paid automatically. She consolidated her to-do lists into one document on her laptop and discarded box after box of outdated files. But on August 24, 2005, as she was getting her personal life in order, her professional life took a devastating hit: She was cut from the U.S. women’s hockey team.

“It was a shock that I can only compare to a death,” she recalls. “I went through a period of mourning. Suddenly, the outlet for all my energy, and the source of my self-esteem, was gone.”

A few months before the 2006 Olympic games, NBC Sports called to ask Granato if she was interested in going to Turin as a sportscaster. At first, it seemed a bad idea. Being on the sidelines would be frustrating to someone whose life had been dedicated to playing hockey. And she worried that her ADHD would get in the way.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get thoughts from my head out of my mouth in a concise way,” she says. Luckily, her husband, former hockey pro and ESPN sportscaster Ray Ferraro, proved to be the perfect coach for her new endeavor. “We’d watch hockey games together, and I’d practice commenting on them,” she says. “He’d show me how to weed out the wordy stuff.”

Granato had a great time in Turin. “Though I wasn’t playing, I found myself feeling all the highs and lows of the game,” she says. “It was nice to still feel that. I may never be the best sportscaster out there, but life isn’t about being the best, with or without ADHD. It’s about meeting challenges, and doing the best job you can. ADHD comes with certain strengths and weaknesses that have made me who I am, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Chris Kaman

Center for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers
“If I mess up, I mess up. I don’t let ADD bring me down.”

Chris Kaman was diagnosed with ADD at the age of two. At four, he locked his babysitter out of the house so he could try his hand at cooking (fried Pringles with ketchup, anyone?). At seven, while playing outside his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he started a fire that grew out of control; the fire department had to put it out.

In high school, suspensions were common for Kaman. He was prone to talking out of turn and jumping from his chair. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would turn off the lights in the classroom.

Yet Kaman never considered ADD a problem. “Sure, it’s been hard for me sometimes, but I don’t dwell on it,” he says. “People get so serious about ADD. I’m like, ‘Hey, I have ADD, what am I gonna do?’ To me, all it means is that my friends and family get to give me more crap. Parents of kids with ADD have to stay positive. Maybe your kid will be a little crazy, but you can’t get down on him every time he messes up. Everyone messes up. That’s life. But eventually, we’ll come around.”

If staying focused in class was hard, there was one school activity at which Kaman excelled: basketball. Averaging 16.2 points and 13.9 rebounds per game (which helped his team go 24-2 his senior year to reach the state quarterfinals), Kaman thought he could be even more effective on the court if not for his meds. He thought they made him lose weight and feel fatigued. “I was seven feet tall but only 200 pounds, so I’d get thrown all over the court. I couldn’t hold my ground,” he recalls. “Medication kept me from being as competitive as I wanted to be. Sometimes I’d skip my afternoon pill, but my coach would notice and ask me, ‘Chris, did you take your medication today?'”

After winning a sports scholarship to Central Michigan, Kaman stopped his meds. He gained the weight he was looking for – and his grades improved. “College was a much better environment for me, since each block of classes was only two hours long, tops,” he says. “In high school, you’d have to sit there for seven hours straight, and that’s hard for any kid, much less one with ADD.”

Still, there were problems for Kaman after he turned pro and joined the Los Angeles Clippers, in 2003. “The biggest challenges were the huddles, and remembering the plays the coach wanted us to do,” he recalls. “I’d be looking somewhere else, and my coach would yell, ‘Kaman, what did I just say?'”

To get through to Kaman, Clippers coach Michael Dunleavy adopted a new tactic – showing Kaman what needed to be done rather than telling him. “He found out I’m a visual learner,” Kaman says. “Once, he was trying to explain how to do a left-hand drive off my right foot, and I just couldn’t do it. Then he did it himself to illustrate, and I got it immediately.”

The custom-tailored coaching – and Kaman’s hard work – began paying off. Go to any Clippers game these days, and you’ll see hordes of Kaman fans, or “Kamaniacs.” Many wear blond wigs and fake beards in tribute to Kaman’s scraggly appearance (he hasn’t cut his hair in two years).

When not playing, Kaman, now 24, spends much of his time in his Redondo Beach, California, mansion, which is equipped with a pool table, a Ping-Pong table, and an archery range. He shares his home with a posse of three childhood friends, a Rottweiler named Tank, and a nameless python. He doesn’t drink or do drugs; the only vice he admits to is speeding (he once drove his Porsche the wrong way down a one-way street at 180 miles an hour).

Does Kaman have second thoughts about revealing his ADD to his friends and fans? Never. “I’d rather people know I have ADD than just think I’m nuts,” he laughs.

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