Swimmer Dana Vollmer joined the London Olympics highlight reel when she set a record in the 100-meter butterfly on Sunday, becoming the first woman ever to finish the event in less than 56 seconds. For the 24-year-old American swimmer, capturing the gold was something of a redemption, coming four years after she failed to qualify for the team at the Beijing Olympics. But one of the most compelling aspects of Ms. Vollmer’s story is that she overcame not only athletic stumbles on her way to the gold but also a potentially deadly heart condition.
At the age of 15, already an elite swimmer, Ms. Vollmer, from Granbury, Tex., was taken to a local doctor after experiencing dizzy spells while training. Doctors discovered she had an abnormal heartbeat and set up a procedure to correct it. But they then discovered she had a genetic cardiac electrical disorder called long QT syndrome, which could lead at any moment to sudden cardiac arrest.
The diagnosis was sobering. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, each year about 2,000 people under the age of 25 die of sudden cardiac arrest in the United States, most because of long QT syndrome and other electrical and structural defects in the heart. While sudden cardiac arrest can strike those who are sedentary, the risk is up to three times as great in competitive athletes.
Such diagnoses have derailed the ambitions of many young athletes. But Ms. Vollmer and her family decided against what may have been a career-ending decision to implant a defibrillator in her heart, and instead chose — with the approval of her doctors — to allow her to continue training as long as an external defibrillator was always within reach.
When Ms. Vollmer won her first Olympic gold at age 16, in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay event in 2004, her mother, Cathy, was watching from the stands, a defibrillator at her feet. As Ms. Vollmer noted in a profile posted on the Web site Everyday Health:
“That defibrillator represented that I wasn’t invincible. I could die, my heart could just stop. I refused to touch it. I didn’t think if I carried that thing around I could mentally push myself to continue to train, to go to the Olympics,” she says. “My mom really became my rock at that point.”
It was Cathy who carted the defibrillator to every practice and meet so Dana could focus on swimming. …
“There were definitely times it was scary, as much as I tried to block it out. If I got lightheaded, I would associate it with long QT,” she says. Part of Olympic training involves underwater work, and for Dana, having to hold her breath to the point of feeling lightheaded was one of the hardest things to do.
“Slowly but surely I never fainted and never had symptoms. It just got further and further from my mind.”
Ms. Vollmer appears to have outgrown her long QT diagnosis. Doctors can no longer detect any signs of it. But her story illustrates that some athletes can still participate in competitive sports despite cardiac defects. Indeed, a study by the Mayo Clinic published last week looked at 130 athletes who continued competing despite a diagnosis of long QT syndrome and found that only one had a cardiac event triggered by the condition while playing. The athlete received a shock from an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator on two separate occasions.
As an article on Well pointed out in April, many organizations around the country have been pushing for wider cardiac screening measures that can help identify young athletes with conditions like Ms. Vollmer’s. Their goal is to promote awareness of the defects that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest. Many are also working to ensure that external defibrillators are stationed at every pool, playing field and gymnasium where students play sports — so that future young athletes like Ms. Vollmer can continue to compete.
SOURCE: The New York Times