The Heart of a Champion
Shannon Kelly’s heart condition almost killed her. Now she has a new hobby: competing in triathlons.
I remember being able to run a mile when I was 13 years old, but I started to slow down after that and I didn’t know why. I played tennis in high school, but when my coach wanted me to run a couple of laps around the track, I almost passed out. He would say, “Shannon’s got a good stroke, but she won’t run for the ball.” I wanted to, but I couldn’t.
When I was 18, my mom found out that she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy—an enlarged heart muscle. Her mother had died of the same thing at 47, and my mom was 42; she was really worried. Then the cardiologist tested my younger brother and me for the disease. He was fine, but I had it. He said I would probably need a transplant at some point.
My mother’s condition deteriorated over the next few years, and I got a pacemaker at 21. It helped my heart beat better, but I still had trouble walking up any type of incline. I had congestive heart failure too—my lungs filled up with water a couple of times, and I ended up in the hospital.
My mom got a transplant when I was 24; it saved her life. But I wasn’t sick enough to qualify. After college, I became a website designer, married, and settled with my husband in Yonkers, New York. With each passing year, my disease got worse and our life got more constricted. By my mid-30s, I couldn’t make a bed without getting winded. I had to sleep propped up on pillows so I could breathe.
Then, in April 2006, I wound up back in the ICU with heart failure. My doctor said, “There’s nothing more I can do for you at this point. Your heart is dying.” He recommended me for a transplant. I was in such bad health that they put me at the top of the waiting list, but it can still take ages to find a match; some people never do. Luckily, I got the call within a month. The surgery took six hours, but as soon as I woke up, I could feel it—my new heart was so strong.
When I left the hospital, I could climb the eight flights of stairs in the unit without stopping. I decided I was really going to build up my strength. I started running on a treadmill at the gym and signed up for tennis lessons. I could finally run for the ball!
I wanted to push myself further. So in July 2008, I played tennis in the Transplant Games. Then the wife of one of my teammates told me about a women’s triathlon—a half-mile swim, followed by a 12-mile bike ride and a 2.1-mile run. The event was scheduled for a year later at Mount Snow, Vermont, and I thought, Let me see if I can work up to that.
Soon I was running three miles a day. I bought a bike and started swimming. And one morning last summer, I was standing by a lake with several dozen other women. They write your race number on your arm with a marker, and I had them add the words Thank you, donor family.
Once we jumped into the water, adrenaline took over. They’d assigned me a “swim angel” with a flotation device in case I had trouble, but I left her behind. The biking part was a killer, but the running seemed easy. I finished the race in the middle of the pack—number 93 out of 189—and it felt amazing.
I’ve signed up to do more triathlons this year, and I’ll be thinking about my donor each time. All I know about him is that he was 17 years old and that he and his family gave me a second chance at life. This heart is a tremendous gift, and it’s up to me to stay fit and take care of it.
Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun lost both legs in a 2003 grenade attack in Iraq. But that didn’t stop him.
After the rocket hit, I was lying in the back of the truck, and I could see that my legs were messed up—my trousers were ripped, and I was bleeding pretty bad. I tried to stand up. A bunch of men from my unit held me down, and I went into shock.
I ended up getting a double amputation above the knees, then being flown to Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Before I got hit, I’d been a good runner, but now I didn’t know if I’d walk again. After months of physical therapy, I should have been using prostheses. But there are challenges, in terms of balance, gait, and fit, for people who have lost as much of both legs as I have, and I couldn’t seem to learn how.
When I’d been in the hospital for five months, the Disabled American Veterans held a winter sports clinic in Aspen, Colorado, and I attended with my wife. I’d skied a few times in high school, but nothing major. At the clinic, they taught me how to use a monoski.
Skiing was the first thing that gave me my legs back. I could use the same ski lift as everybody else. The only limitation on which slope I went down was my skill level. I didn’t develop much proficiency that weekend, but I had a blast.
When I went home to Clarksville, Tennessee, four months later, I continued physical therapy. In the summer of ’04, I rode a handcycle for about 40 miles in a fund-raiser for the Wounded Warrior Project. I enjoyed it so much that the next year, I cycled across the country with a couple of other guys. It took us two months. Seeing the U.S.A. one town at a time was very cool.
That winter, I trained in a monoski camp for people with disabilities. But I still wasn’t walking, and I figured there was something about me that was causing the problems. Then I found a prosthetics company that had worked with a lot of bilateral above-the-knee amputees. I got my new legs that July 2006—complete with micro-processors that adjust for activity level and terrain—and I haven’t used a wheelchair since.
The prostheses allowed me to branch out into other sports. In 2007, I won silver medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Endeavor Games. I’ve been on a relay team in a couple of triathlons and played in a golf tournament. But my main sport is skiing. I live in Clarksville with my wife and three kids, but I’ve spent the past three winters in Aspen, competing in Alpine events with financial support from the Veterans Paralympic Performance Program.
When I’m out on the slopes, it feels good to know that I ski better than most people who have their legs. Being disabled is a relative term—you can still do plenty with what the good Lord has given you.
Playing Through Pain
Kristy McPherson was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 11. Today, she’s one of the best in her sport.
Growing up in Conway, South Carolina, I was always athletic and competitive. I joined the school softball and basketball teams and played football with the guys in the neighborhood. One afternoon, my brother tackled me in the yard, and I felt some kind of pop. About an hour later, I tried to get up from a chair and couldn’t move. Over the weekend, my joints swelled up and I had trouble swallowing. My mother took me to the hospital.
It took nearly six months to diagnose what was wrong with me. Then I was put on medication for rheumatoid arthritis and went through physical therapy to get walking again. But I had so much joint damage that I couldn’t run like I used to. I sat on the porch while the other kids played.
My dad was a serious golfer and had won amateur tournaments. One day he said, “Let’s try golf.” He carried me onto the course and sat me in a cart. Seeing him hit all those good shots made me want to do it too.
After a while, I tried doing a little putting. It wasn’t easy at first, because I had a lot of pain in my hands. I’d played some junior golf when I was seven or eight, but it had never really caught my interest—it was too quiet for me. Now it hurt each time I hit the ball. But I was happy to be outside, happy to have a chance at competing again, and I fell in love with the sport.
By the time I was 13 or 14, I was good but not very good. That made me mad, so I started working hard. I made the high school team, but I got frustrated when I didn’t win, so I worked harder. After practice, I’d hit another nine holes by myself. Golf was the most challenging game I’d ever played.
I got a golf scholarship to the University of South Carolina and turned pro after I graduated. It took me three years to qualify for the LPGA Tour, but I just finished my third season—my best yet, with six top-ten finishes. I still take medication, and I’m stiff and in pain sometimes, especially on cold, damp days. But I’ve gotten used to that.
I probably wouldn’t be a professional athlete if I hadn’t gotten sick. The experience taught me patience, and I learned to take nothing for granted. I know how blessed I am to do what I do.
A Burden Lifted
When Jeff Schulman weighed more than 400 pounds, his ankles ached from walking. Then he started running.
As a kid in the Bronx, I was always chubby, but I was also into sports—Little League, soccer, football. In college, I was less active, and I started blowing up. It got out of control when I went to law school. I could easily have half a large pizza in one sitting. I’d eat several hamburgers for lunch and a huge bowl of pasta with butter for dinner, and I’d snack constantly on pretzels and chips.
I’d made a mental decision a thousand times: I’m going to start losing weight now. But what prompted me to get serious about it was turning 30. At that point, I weighed 414 pounds. I was always tired. I have a family history of heart disease, and I was scared. I also wanted to look better. So a few weeks after my birthday, in the spring of 2006, I walked into the office of a weight-loss doctor.
She was very understanding, very compassionate. Her focus was on balanced meals and portion control, and she wanted me to exercise.
Walking was all I could do at first. I started by walking to a subway stop a few blocks away instead of the one closest to my apartment. On weekends, I’d walk in Central Park. I gradually increased the distance, until one weekend, about a year into it, I found myself saying, Wow, this seems pretty easy. So I started to run. At first I could run for only two minutes, but I built up my endurance. I joined a gym, too, and did cardio and weight training six days a week.
It made a difference. I was losing nine or ten pounds a month, and I had a lot more energy. And there’s something about running: It makes you feel like a kid again. I enjoyed it.
I started to think about the New York City Marathon, which goes right past my apartment building. For years, I watched the runners and thought, This looks like fun, but these people are crazy. I could never do that. But now I realized that maybe I could. I joined the New York Road Runners—the group that organizes the marathon. I ran a 10K, some four- and five-mile races, then a half-marathon. I still wasn’t confident I could run a full 26 miles. But I told myself I was going to do it, no matter what.
By my 33rd birthday, in the spring of 2009, I was down to 180 pounds. That summer, I started formally training for the marathon. And on the morning of November 1, I stood on the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island with more than 40,000 other runners, waiting for the event to start. It was exciting but also scary: You can see the Manhattan skyline on the horizon, and it looks so far away.
When we started moving, it was an incredible feeling to have spectators cheering me on, handing me cups of water. In Harlem, my mom and brother stood on a street corner, waving. And then I crossed the finish line in Central Park, and somebody put a medal around my neck. I was in tears from being so happy. My friends sprayed me with champagne, as if I’d won the Super Bowl.
My goal had been to finish, ideally in less than four hours. I made it in three hours, 54 minutes and change. And at that moment, I knew: If I set my mind to something, nothing is impossible.