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by Phillippe Diederich

December 31, 2008

Health issues don't stop this swimmer


U.S. Masters Swimming member Gail Roper spoke to a group of Medtronic employees about the pacemaker that allows her to live a full life and continue to set swimming world records.

Roper, 80, taught herself to swim as a child and coached herself to become the 1948-51 New Jersey State Champion. She was also a member of the U.S. swimming team in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, although she was unable to compete due to a ligament injury prior to the event. Not to be held down for long, she rebounded with a number one world ranking in 1953.

Roper took 18 years off from competitive swimming in order to raise seven children, but when she returned to the sport at 44, she approached it with the same passion and spirit that made her a top swimmer in her youth. She competed in the first Masters meet held in 1970 and immediately began setting national and world records.

In 1986 Roper was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine that can cause cramps, numbness and pain. Although her doctors advised her to restrict her swimming, Roper refused to retire. “I just kept swimming. Sometimes when I dive in I twist my neck and a numbness happens,” she says. Roper continued to set national and world records in her age group. In 1997 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honors Masters Swimmer.

Then, in 2002 she experienced a couple of strange episodes while working out which caused her to lose consciousness. A number of tests were performed. “I did not have heart trouble or blockages, but my electrical system began to wear out,” she says. Roper was diagnosed with a slow irregular heartbeat. Her arterial node was malfunctioning and a pacemaker had to be implanted.

“This happens a lot with Masters swimmers, sometimes the heart races with atrial fibrillation and sometimes it slows down and causes fainting. Mine slows down,” Roper says.

Roper was fitted with the pacemaker after the Cleveland Nationals. The pacemaker was replaced in 2009 and Roper still managed to set 11 world records in the 80-84 age group that same year.

Inspired by Roper’s story, Medtronics, the company that designed and made the pacemaker, invited her to speak to their employees at their annual Christmas meeting. Roper spoke about her swimming history, the Olympics, U.S. Masters Swimming and how she almost passed out during a Masters workout.

“The employees like to hear how their work enables people to continue to do what they normally do,” Roper says. After her speech, Roper also met and thanked members of the team that designed the pacemaker that has allowed her to continue to swim and set world records.