07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
Nancy Hogshead had her sternest test before she ever got to the Olympics. As a 19-year-old Duke sophomore in 1981, she was assaulted and raped in the woods on campus. Her emotional pain was so intense, she later recalled, that she almost gave up all hope of competing. But a psychologist suggested she turn her anger into an advantage—as a spur to swim faster. "I used the rape for a whole year," she says. "I was so mad at that guy!" Winning three gold medals and a silver in Los Angeles in 1984 was a double triumph. "First of all, I didn't think I was going to live after the rape," she says. But to survive and win at the Olympics "gave me my self back again."
That was not her only obstacle. In her last race in L.A., while going for a fifth medal, she suffered a bronchial spasm and finished fourth. An Olympic doctor took her aside, and tests discovered that she had exercise-induced asthma. For years, she had known that "something was going on with my lungs," and sometimes after races, she would be so out of breath that she passed out. Finally getting medication "was like putting on glasses," she says, "like seeing for the first time." With the right drugs, she was able to do all kinds of sports—including running, which had always been difficult because she would be stopped by fits of coughing. Hogshead soon became a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, traveling and giving hundreds of lectures around the country on managing the condition. In 1991, she wrote a book, Asthma and Exercise, that is still in paperback.
She'll do promotion work with Olympic corporate sponsors in Atlanta, where she'll be with the man in her life, Jeff Bliss, 43, head of Olympic marketing for Sara Lee. Then Hogshead, 34, heads back for her last year at Georgetown University law school. Though she finds her asthma symptoms come back with the stress of final exams, that doesn't stop her. As to marriage, she's keeping her counsel—and concentrating on her career and tentative plans to practice law back in her hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. "I want to work in one community...and get a feeling of belonging," she says. "I'm tired of living out of a suitcase."