Triathlon Helps One Mother Dream Big After Heart Attack

By Emily Holcroft | Dec. 09, 2016, 6:13 p.m. (ET)

emily holcroft

I recently qualified for Age Group Nationals for the Olympic-distance race in August 2017! Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that would be possible. Here is why. 

I am 45 years old, a mother of four beautiful children, and I’ve been married for 21 years. I have always been an athlete. Gymnastics, volleyball, field hockey, diving, cheerleading and tennis. I competed as a Division I level diver for four years in college. However, once I began having children, the extent of my exercise was pretty much walking and chasing after my kids.

After the birth of my fourth child in 2008, I suffered a mini stroke leaving me with weakness to my entire left side. After a year of rehab and recovery I had another mini stroke. A large hole was found in my heart, which they repaired in 2009. I decided after that that I wanted to get my body back in to shape. I started running and swimming.

In 2012 my femoral artery was nicked during a routine hysterectomy. The surgeon told my husband that I most likely wouldn't make it. It was a long recovery. Experiencing a near-death occurrence really changes how you view life. Many of my friends are marathon runners and knowing that running was not my strength, my girlfriend recommended that I look into doing a triathlon. That is when I began training. I was so excited and in the best shape of my life. One month shy of my first race I began experiencing fatigue, shortness of breath and pain in my left arm. Even being a nurse, the thought of having a heart attack was the furthest thing on my radar. After all I had a triathlon to do!

I rested for a day. I know, right? My symptoms kept worsening. Exactly one year after my hysterectomy scare, I suffered a massive heart attack that led to emergency open-heart surgery for a quadruple bypass. What? All I can remember is waking up in the ICU with my surgeon standing at the end of my bed. I had no idea that I had even had surgery let alone open-heart surgery. Once I realized what had happened and saw the tubes coming out of every orifice in my body, I gave the surgeon the most pathetic look.

"Does this mean I can't do my triathlon next month?" Scary thing is, I was serious! Of course he said very kindly, "no honey, not this year."

I did manage to muster enough strength to pick up my swag and experience the pre-race festivities just one week out of the hospital. My recovery met obstacle after obstacle as I experienced lung complications and infections. After three months of cardiac rehab I was given the green light to begin training again … slowly. So, I immediately signed up for the triathlon I was supposed to do for the previous year. But, again, one month shy of the race, I began experiencing shortness of breath. A virus caused fluid to build up around my heart. So, I was side lined yet again.

Once I recovered, I began training again. Third time is a charm, right? I decided to steer clear from the Bethany Beach race in August, after two failed attempts, and I signed up for a race in June that was closer to home. I joined a Triathlon team, which soon became my second family. I crossed the finish line in my first triathlon in June 2015. It was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had next to my wedding day and the birth of our children. I went on to compete in three more races that season and landed on the podium in two of them.

I have caught the triathlon bug. I trained really hard in the offseason and competed in six races this past summer. I placed top three in my age group in every race and placed third overall for the women in one of them. I did my first Olympic-distance and placed second in my age group. Then the most exciting thing happened. I decided last minute to sign up for the race that I missed two years in a row. I know, crazy.

The Bethany Beach Triathlon was held in September and was my first USA Triathlon Sanctioned Event. I finished second in my age group and 10th overall even after having been diagnosed with a stress fracture the day after the race. No wonder my run was so off. I probably would have done so much better. But, to my utter surprise I qualified for Nationals! I can't tell you how excited I am.

I hope to encourage others to never give up.

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