• By Jason Howland

Swimmer still setting records despite heart disease

February 20, 2020

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women. One in every 4 deaths in the U.S. is caused by it. And even if you live a healthy life, eat right and are physically fit, heart disease can still happen.

One record-setting swimmer knows that all too well, and his journey from the pool to the hospital eventually led to double-bypass surgery at Mayo Clinic. Reporter Jason Howland has his story.

Watch: Trip Hedrick's Mayo Clinic story

Journalists: Broadcast-quality video (4:05) is in the downloads at the end of this post. Please "Courtesy: Mayo Clinic News Network." Read the script.

"I'm more comfortable in the water than I am on land," says Trip Hedrick of Ames, Iowa.

The 65-year-old was born to swim.

"The water surrounding you, just for me, is just a wonderful sense of security and peace," he says. "It's like getting a liquid hug, so to speak. And then you go underwater and push off, and you just have this silent calm."

A collegiate All-American swimmer turned high school coach and then head men's swimming coach at Iowa State University for 12 years, Hedrick has spent the better part of his life at the pool in Ames and many others.

"I swim five days a week. I lift two days a week, and then I do an additional cardio workout twice a week," he says.

He's one of the top contenders in U.S. Masters Swimming, a competitive organization for various adult age groups.

"The 'fly is something that comes very natural for me, and I've had probably most of my success in the butterfly events," says Hedrick.

Over the span of four decades, Hedrick has set 30 national records and an additional nine world records.

"It seems like my body's built for water sports and not land sports," he says.

But in 2000 when he was 46, his body was telling him something was wrong.

"I was swimming a typical workout, and all of a sudden I had this chest pressure and radiating arm pain. And I kind of talked myself out of it being my heart," says Hedrick.

After it occurred again a few days later, he called his primary care physician and passed an exercise stress test with flying colors. But the symptoms persisted.

"I got hit with a really cold wind, and had the chest pain and arm pressure," says Hedrick.

Eventually taken to the hospital, doctors confirmed that he had a heart attack and that he also had heart disease.

"And that was really hard to hear," says Hedrick.

He had a 99% blockage in his left anterior descending artery, which is the "widow-maker."

"Some patients have just very vague symptoms: a sense of unease, maybe just a little bit of sweating but nothing that's dramatic," says Dr. Panithaya Chareonthaitawee, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist.

Hedrick would have the first of three stent procedures over the next 15 years to clear his arteries.

"I think I thought I was the healthy one. I had this workout regimen. I thought my exercise would keep those veins unclogged," Hedrick says.

"We think that genetics play a big role in the development of heart disease," says Dr. Chareonthaitawee. "Sometimes patients do everything that they can. They do everything right, and the disease still progresses."

"The competitor in me came out, thinking I can beat this. I can reverse this heart disease, and the fact that I continued to have issues really bothered me," says Hedrick.

In March 2018, less than a year after setting a world record in the 50-meter butterfly, his exercise capacity had come down.

"And that was enough to get me worried," says Dr. Chareonthaitawee.

"You're going to need bypass surgery," Hedrick recalls the doctor's words.

"You don't usually expect to walk into a room and find a patient who looks more physically fit than the doctor is," says Dr. John Stulak, a Mayo Clinic cardiovascular surgeon.

Despite his appearance, Hedrick's coronary arteries, which feed blood to the heart, were 85% blocked, and would require open-heart surgery.

"Heart surgery is not a cure. We're basically resetting a clock," says Dr. Stulak. "Coronary artery bypass surgery is basically plumbing. Our job is to route blood around the blockages."

Two months after a double bypass, Hedrick returned to the water.

"I just told my wife yesterday that my cardiovascular (health) feels great," he says.

And for his doctors at Mayo Clinic, he gave himself a personal challenge.

"I said: 'I'm so appreciative of what you've done for me. I'm going to promise I'm going to set a world record for you,'" he says.

"I made a promise right back to him that I would be in the audience when he did it," says Dr. Stulak.

"I want to be the one that tries to defy perceived limitations of what you can do or how fast you can go," says Hedrick.

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