Olympic gold-medalist Dana Vollmer was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia when she was just 14, but she says by listening to her doctors, she was able to continue her journey to the top.
There’s no good time to be diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, but getting this news while training for the Olympics has to be among the worst. This is exactly what happened to swimmer Dana Vollmer, who nevertheless went on to become one of the most gold-medaled United States Olympians of all time.
Vollmer was diagnosed at age 14, when she was already working toward competing in the Olympic games.
“My whole life was swimming and athletics. if I wasn’t in the pool, I was playing volleyball or basketball, and it seemed like everything I knew could be taken away in an instant,” Vollmer said. “I had never felt that out of control of what was happening.” She added that she wouldn’t have been able to keep going if it wasn’t for the support of her mom, who she said was at every practice, weight session, and competition, with a defibrillator ready just in case her heart stopped.
An arrhythmia is a problem with the heart rate, in which the heart beats either too quickly or too slowly. Vollmer says her racing heartbeat was corrected with surgery, but her doctors also discovered the appearance of Long QT rhythms, a condition which can suddenly cause fast and chaotic heartbeats resulting in fainting or in extreme cases even death.
“My family discussed everything we could from an implanted defibrillator to serious lifestyle changes. Luckily for me, the patterns were not confirmed as Long QT Syndrome, but as random long QT-type patterns. Doctors cleared me to continue to train and compete as long as I kept a defibrillator unit next to me at all times,” Vollmer said. While she eventually tested negative for the genetic marker for Long QT Syndrome, her genetic test did reveal two markers related to the cardiovascular system that were abnormal. This is part of the reason she remains such an outspoken advocate for continued research into heart health.
In order to maintain good heart health, Vollmer urges everyone to keep on top of their own numbers; know the signs of heart attack and stroke, which are different for men and women; and continue to eat healthy and exercise.
Vollmer’s arrhythmia didn’t stop her from becoming an Olympic gold medalist, but it was still something she and her family had to consider. To anyone recently diagnosed with a heart abnormality, Vollmer says it may mean you have to change your life path. But that’s OK.
“Your dream may have to change depending on your diagnosis. It’s not always about pushing through the obstacles, sometimes we can find a more fulfilling enriching path in another direction.”