Former Winona swim coach overcoming heart disease, sets national and world swim records

Mayo Clinic doctors help Masters Swimmer reach record goals after heart disease setback

AMES, Iowa. (WKBT) – COVID-19 has our attention, but we often forget the leading cause of death in American men and women is heart disease. A former Winona swim coach and now competitive swimmer stared death in the face. However, he says his physical fitness from the sport he loves saved his life.

Life doesn’t pass on a linear path.

“For me is just a wonderful sense of security and peace,” said Trip Hedrick, a U.S. Masters Swimmer and former head men’s swimming coach at Iowa State University.

Hedrick understands the waves that can knock a person off their journey.

“I’m much more comfortable than on land,” Hedrick said. “I think a lot of swimmers will tell you that.”

His quest started in the heart of Minnesota.

“Started swimming at Bemidji State,” he said. “I found a coach that really opened the door, life-changing experience, gave me a chance to be on a team.”

Bemidji State is where his heart fell for this Olympic sport.

Hedrick is a member of the NSIC Hall of Fame. He took his first coaching job at Winona High School in 1977. He later coached as an assistant for the 1988 National Champion Texas Longhorns, before becoming the head swimming coach at Iowa State.

“Became involved in Masters Swimming,” he said.

He’s now one of the best athletes in U.S. Masters Swimming, a competitive organization for numerous adult age groups. Hedrick is so good he set 30 national records and an additional nine world records. His path forward took a big step back in 2000.

“I was kind of in denial,” he said. “I thought maybe this is asthma or something else.”

Hedrick passed a stress test with no problem. However, his heart spoke to him.

“I had the widow maker, 99 percent blockage in my left anterior descending artery,” he said.

Doctors placed the first stent to unblock the artery. He was only 46 years old.

“Unfortunately it wasn’t my last,” Hedrick said.

He received two more stents up to 2018 when Mayo Clinic doctors saw something.

“And that was enough to get me worried,” said Dr. Panithaya Chareonthaitawee, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist.

Hedrick needed bypass surgery.

“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.

Stulak performed Trip’s heart surgery.

“Heart surgery is not a cure. We’re basically resetting a clock,” Stulak said. “Coronary artery bypass surgery is basically plumbing. Our job is to route blood around the blockages.”

This hurt Hedrick mentally just as much as it did physically.

“It hit me really hard that I was fit,” he said. “I tried to do everything I could to not be one of those guys that drop dead on the pool deck.”

Chareonthaitawee said a lot of factors come into play with heart disease.

“Some patients have just very vague symptoms,” Chareonthaitawee said. “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.”

For Hedrick, the world records and national championships did not measure his career as an athlete. He focused on how he would respond in the face of this crisis.

“I think being fit probably saved my life,” Hedrick said.

Hedrick found himself back in the pool just a couple of months after his surgery.

“Let me tell you that felt the best,” he said. “Just getting back into my element.

“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.'”

Hedrick’s doctors supported his mission.

“I made a promise right back to him that I would be in the audience when he did it,” Stulak said.

Life is messy and Trip took the path he was given and continued to push forward one stroke at a time.

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

“I don’t suffer survivors’ remorse. I call it survivors’ reflection.”

In August he achieved his goal.

“I would say I pretty much crushed the world record,” Hedrick said.

Those who know Trip understand his best time in the pool is always the next one.

“I celebrated for a day and got back into training for nationals,” Hedrick said.

He pushed past his given path. This response to this crisis is how you measure a champion’s heart.  Hedrick will compete in another national swim meet in Ohio in October. He said to form healthy habits now and take care of your heart because you only have one.

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