The North Texas Lonestars member had a pacemaker installed two years ago but keeps setting personal bests
Robert Sussmeier had a life-changing practice in October 2016.
As he normally does, the North Texas Lonestars member went to his morning workout 30 minutes before it began because he needed to get out early for work. Once he finished his warm-up, Sussmeier began feeling ill. He felt his heartbeat in his ears, felt faint, and experienced tunnel vision.
That was the last thing he remembers before passing out in the water, with no lifeguard on deck.
Fortunately for Sussmeier, he came to a few moments later—he’s uncertain of how long he was out—underwater and two lanes over. Still, he decided to finish his workout and nonchalantly told his parents what had happened.
“Of course, they freaked out,” Sussmeier says. “I ended up going to a cardiologist.”
He eventually had a pacemaker installed two years ago—at the age of 26.
Sussmeier’s doctor didn’t discuss how rare someone that young getting a pacemaker is, but it appears to be a rarity. Eight-four percent of pacemakers are implanted in people over 65 and six percent in people younger than 49, according to a WebMD article.
Sussmeier continued to swim after getting his pacemaker and competed in the 100-meter freestyle on Friday at the 2019 U.S. Masters Swimming Summer National Championship at the Marguerite Aquatic Center in Mission Viejo, Calif. The 28-year-old placed seventh in the men’s 25-29 age group.
“Honestly, I was kind of pissed [at having to get a pacemaker],” Sussmeier says, “but at the same time, I’m kind of grateful that it happened because if I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
His father, Michael Sussmeier, came from their hometown in Texas to watch him swim.
“It’s always exciting to come out here and follow him and my daughter in everything they do,” Michael says. “It’s still pretty interesting to come here and see him swimming with all the health issues he’s had.”
Robert was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve dysfunction.
The heart’s aortic valve, which connects the left ventricle and aorta, normally has three small flaps that open and close to regulate blood flow and keep it from flowing back into the heart. Sussmeier’s has only two flaps and allows blood to flow back into the heart, meaning his heart must pump the same blood out again, causing strain.
His injury was somewhat ironic.
One year before his incident in the pool, he got a tattoo of a bear claw over his heart, something that’s supposed to be a good omen among Apache people. The scar from Sussmeier’s surgery runs in one of the blank spots in his tattoo.
“Who would’ve thought something that’s supposed to mean something like you’re strong and then that happening in the same general area?” he says.
After swimming for Division III McMurry University in his home state Texas, Sussmeier has continued to set personal bests, doing so in five events as a Masters swimmer. He plans to continue participating in Masters meets, including the 2019 USMS Spring National Championship next April in San Antonio.
“Once you get to a certain age, you kind of realize you’re not going to get any better,” Sussmeier says. “But if I’m 70 and still swimming and pushing myself to the max, I’ll still be happy.”
Records Broken on Friday, Aug. 9
Jack Groselle, Sarasota Sharks Masters: men’s 65-69 100 freestyle—59.49 (USMS record and FINA Masters world record)
Richard Burns, Tamalpais Aquatic Masters: men’s 75-79 100 freestyle—1:06.55 (USMS record)
Steve West, Novaquatics Masters: men’s 45-49 50 breaststroke—29.42 (USMS record)
Laurel Hill, Arizona Masters: women’s 50-54 50 breaststroke—36.94 (USMS record)
Swim Fort Lauderdale: mixed 72-99 200 freestyle relay—1:45.12 (USMS record)
Ventura County Masters: men’s 280-319 200 medley relay—2:15.90 (USMS record and FINA Masters world record)
Novaquatics Masters: women’s 240-279 200 medley relay—2:23.54 (USMS record)
Oregon Masters: women’s 240-279 200 medley relay—2:22.45 (USMS record)
Jeff Natalizio, Novaquatics Masters: men's 35-39 50 backstroke—26.74 (USMS record)
Meguru Hotta, Phoenix Swim Club: men's 18-24 50 backstroke—26.65 (USMS record)
Note: All records are subject to change pending verification.