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Competitive Swimming With Coronary Artery Disease

By Trip Hedrick, as told to Janie McQueen

One day in 2000, at age 46, I was in the pool doing a hard set when a jolt of chest pain and radiating arm pain stopped me cold. I’ve been swimming most of my life — I was a member of U.S. Masters Swimming for more than 40 years and have participated in national and world championships — so I’m no stranger to a twinge of pain. This felt different, but I assumed it was asthma or that I’d strained my triceps.

The discomfort eased and I finished the rest of my workout. But when the pain came back 2 days later, I immediately called my doctor and went in for a treadmill stress test. I’ve been periodically having stress tests since the mid-1980s; after witnessing the ultimately fatal cardiac events of very fit and active swimmers, I wanted to be vigilant.

I passed the test “with flying colors,” yet just 2 weeks later, I wound up at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. I was having a heart attack.

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

I had always bragged to my inactive buddies that I’d be the one to dodge heart issues. 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 LAD diagonal branch, and I received my third stent.

From Rehab to New Records

I completed cardiac rehab after my first heart attack, and I returned after my third stent was put in. In both instances, I was sure my physical rehabilitation would be pretty easy, and not nearly as great of a challenge as my mental rehab. So I started seeing a mental health professional in addition to participating in an exercise training program designed to help me regain my strength and keep my condition from worsening.

My psychological needs and issues were piling up quickly. I was stressed, both from my own self-driven personality and my job as Head Men’s Swimming Coach at Iowa State University and later as head of my own swim school (cycloneswimschool.com). I worried about losing my competitive edge. I was also worried about how my heart issues had affected my wife. She has always been my constant source of reassurance and calm, but I didn’t want to burden her.

Counseling helped significantly, as did physical rehab. I had a great comeback in the pool in 2016, swimming at a highly 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 CAD continued, and I needed double bypass surgery in 2018. Before I went in for the procedure, I reached out to four highly athletic friends who’d had heart surgery. It was one of the best things I could have done to be mentally prepared for it.

Being in excellent shape at the time of surgery helped, too. I’d just started to taper — meaning to scale back training — to get ready for a big Masters swimming competition. My core strength and lung capacity speeded my recovery. I achieved a post-surgery goal of setting another world record in the 50 meter butterfly for the 65-69 age group in August 2021.

A Full Life With CAD

If there is one thing I’ve learned through my bypass surgery and CAD journey, it’s the amazing resilience of the human body and how quickly it can heal.

Throughout these 20+ years, one of the keys to thriving with CAD has been seeing my cardiologist every year, not putting it off. I’ve learned to be a better listener to my body. If I ever get the most subtle feeling that something’s not right, I now ask myself if it might be my heart. Then I act on it.

The single most important thing to me throughout my CAD journey has been the support of my wife of 43 years, L’Louise. I feel it’s vital you have an advocate through any heart-related situations — these are life-and-death matters. L’Louise goes with me to every appointment and every test. Sometimes when we get bad news, I zone out. I rely on L’Louise’s acute listening skills to catch everything. She always asks questions and pushes for answers. And we’re still madly in love.

L’Loiuse and I are both retired now. We love the water of the Mississippi River in Winona, MN, which is where we first met. We spend as many days of each summer as possible hanging out on a sandbar in the backwaters of the river. We also love living in the vibrant college town of Ames, Iowa. We’re avid Iowa State athletic fans and enjoy the many things living in a college community offers.

My mantra remains: “Defy perceived limitations.” I always like to believe that I’m at 100% of what I’m capable of doing, even with the compromised heart function I’m so thankful to have.

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