Thriving after heart surgery at 44
Hi! My name is Ashley Nance, and I am a Masters swimmer from Oklahoma. I am 48 years old, and first joined a swim team during the summer I turned nine. If you do the math, you will see that I have been a competitive swimmer for many, many years. Something that I found out when I was 44 years old makes me look back on my swimming career with astonishment and gratitude, and I would like to tell you about it.
I grew up in Stillwater, Okla., a small town that is the home of Oklahoma State University. There was a girl in my neighborhood who was on the swim team. My brother went to a swim meet with her brother, and when he told me about it, it sounded like fun. I told my mom that I "wanted to swim on a team like Jody." I tried out for the swim team, the Stillwater Aquatic Club (SAC), in the summer of 1967. The head coach was Jim Cutter, the men's OSU head swim coach. My mom told me later that he took me on the team because, as he put it, I was "as big as a horse." While not exactly a ringing endorsement, I did eventually come into my own as a swimmer. As I went through the 10 and under age group, 11-12, 13-14 and 15 and under (and open), I won my share of medals and trophies. My highest ranking was eighth in the nation in 13-14, 200-meter butterfly.
In high school I swam my freshman year, 1971-72. At that time, the boys team had duals, but the girls were just beginning. We had only two duals and no state meet. (This was way before the years of Title IX.) After that I quit swimming for a while. I had been in the water for about six years.
In the summer of 1976 I had my wisdom teeth out and was stuck in bed in the hospital for a while. I remember asking the nurse to wait for my sleeping pill until I had watched the Summer Olympics re-cap for the day. The Olympics motivated me, and the next school year I walked on the OSU women's swim team. I swam breaststroke and individual medley and barely missed lettering as a division I walk-on. I didn't swim the next year, as there was a coaching change and I had student teaching responsibilities. That ended my swimming until the fall of 1984, when I discovered Masters swimming.
I had taken a break from teaching and was working in a jewelry store in downtown Oklahoma City. I started working out after work at the downtown YMCA, which was later destroyed in the Oklahoma City bombing. I don't remember exactly where I heard about Masters swimming, but I joined in 1984 and have been a Masters swimmer ever since.
I guess it is a combination of friendship and fitness that keeps me involved. It is always fun to see friends at meets, and it is also important to know that I am doing something physically good for me.
It was those friends who made me call my husband when I unexpectedly passed out at a Masters meet several years ago. I had just finished a great warm-up and was ready to attack the 500 free in the meet. As I got out of the pool and headed back to the bleachers where my stuff was, everything started to close in around me and I lost consciousness. I came to on the ground with concerned friends all around me.
I rested for a while and started feeling better. I didn't feel quite good enough to swim though, so I showered and got dressed, while a friend waited with me in the locker room. Another friend insisted that I call my husband and even loaned me his car phone to do so. I went ahead and made the hour drive home by myself, but on the following Monday I had some tests done at the hospital. Nothing showed up however, and so we all wrote it off to swimming too much on too much breakfast. That was it until five years later.
On September 6, 2001, I had a heart attack while teaching school. My husband took me to my doctor, who sent me immediately to the emergency room. To make a long story short, my cardiologist discovered that I have a heart anomaly. I don't have a left coronary artery—instead, I have two right coronary arteries. One of those arteries wraps around behind my heart and was getting squeezed, which was the problem. A week later I had double bypass surgery to give the blood alternate ways to go rather than relying on the artery behind my heart. I was 44 years old.
I was very proud to go to the Masters Zone Championship in The Woodlands, Texas in August of 2002. I took my son with me, and didn't mind my surgery scars at all. I placed second in three events and third in three events. I remember feeling strong and joyful. I was liberated because the hospitals, tubes, and days of recuperation were definitely behind me now. I remember a big thunderstorm during the meet, and when we called home, my husband could hear the thunder. My son and I went on to Galveston and had a great time swimming in the ocean before returning home. The trip was my "coming out" party after my heart attack and surgery. I felt like my life was back on track.
I often wonder how I could have swum from ages 9 to 15 and then again from 19-20 without ever exhibiting symptoms or having problems. It is such a rare condition that it is hard to say, but I like to think that my history of competitive swimming and resulting physical condition kept my condition at bay until my heart just had to have help.
Every summer now, before school starts, I get a complete physical from my cardiologist, and every one of them has come back showing absolutely no problems. I still swim, and I have edited the Oklahoma Masters Swimming newsletter for the past eighteen years. I don't get to swim as much as I would like, but since my overall plan is to outlive the competition, I feel like I have plenty of time. That is, with thanks to friends, family and many doctors.