Competitive swimming with coronary artery disease


By Trip Hedrick, told to Janie McQueen

One day in 2000, at the age of 46, I was in the pool doing a hard set when a jerk of chest pain and pain radiating to my arm froze me in the cold. I swam most of my life – I was a member of we Masters swimming for over 40 years and have competed in national and world championships – so I’m no stranger to a heartache. It was different, but I assumed it was asthma or that I had strained my triceps.

The discomfort eased and I finished the rest of my workout. But when the pain returned 2 days later, I immediately called my doctor and had a treadmill stress test. I had periodically stress tests since the mid-1980s; after witnessing the ultimately fatal heart events of very fit and active swimmers, i wanted to be alert.

I passed the test “with flying colors”, but barely 2 weeks later, I found myself at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. I was having a heart attack.

The cardiologist told me that I had coronary artery disease (CAD) and that the left anterior descending artery (LAD) in my heart was 99% blocked. I was rushed to intensive care and then to the cardiac catheterization lab so that I could put on a stent to open the blocked artery.

I had always bragged to my inactive buddies that I would be the only one to avoid heart problems. I was so wrong.

In 2008, I had another heart attack mid-swim. Doctors found another LAD blockage that required a second stent. Then, in 2015, an angiogram showed a major blockage in the first diagonal LAD branch, and I received my third stent.

From rehabilitation to new records

I completed cardiac rehabilitation after my first heart attack, and I came back after my third stent was placed. Either way, I was sure that my physical rehabilitation would be fairly easy, and not as difficult as my mental rehabilitation. So I started seeing a mental health professional in addition to participating in a physical training program designed to help me regain my strength and prevent my condition from getting worse.

My psychological needs and problems were piling up quickly. I was stressed, both by my own autonomous personality and by my work as the head coach of men’s swimming at Iowa State University and later as the principal of my own swimming school (cycloneswimschool.com). I was afraid of losing my competitive edge. I was also worried about how my heart problems had affected my wife. She has always been my constant source of comfort and calm, but I didn’t want to overwhelm her.

The counseling helped a lot, as did the physical rehabilitation. I made a big comeback in the pool in 2016, swimming at a very competitive level for my age group. In 2017, I set another age group world record in the 50-meter butterfly.

Despite maintaining a high level of fitness, my struggle with coronary artery disease continued and I needed a double bypass in 2018. Before undergoing the procedure, I contacted four very good friends. athletes who had undergone heart surgery. It was one of the best things I could have done to mentally prepare myself for it.

Being in excellent shape at the time of surgery also helped. I had just started to cut back – that is, cut back on training – to prepare for a big masters swim competition. My core strength and lung capacity accelerated my recovery. I reached the postoperative goal of setting another world record in the 50-meter butterfly for the 65-69 age group in August 2021.

A busy life with CAD

If there is one thing that I have learned during my coronary artery bypass grafting and CAD journey, it is the incredible resilience of the human body and how quickly it can heal.

Throughout these 20+ years, one of the keys to success with CAD has been seeing my cardiologist every year, not procrastinating. I learned to listen to my body better. If ever I have the subtlest feeling that something is wrong, now I wonder if it could be my heart. Then I act on it.

The most important thing for me throughout my CAD journey has been the support of my wife of 43 years, L’Louise. I think it’s vital that you have an advocate in all heart-related situations – these are life and death matters. The Louise accompanies me to every appointment and every exam. Sometimes when we get bad news, I just log off. I count on L’Louise’s acute listening skills to capture everything. She always asks questions and asks for answers. And we are still madly in love.

L’Loiuse and I are both retired now. We love the water of the Mississippi River in Winona, MN where we first met. Each summer we spend as many days as possible hanging out on a sandbar in the backwaters of the river. We also love living in the bustling college town of Ames, Iowa. We are avid track and field fans of the State of Iowa and appreciate the many things that life in a college community has to offer.

My mantra remains: “Challenge perceived limits. I always like to believe that I am 100% of what I am capable of, even with the compromised heart function that I am so grateful to have.



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