When Tim O’Donnell suffered a heart attack while competing at Challenge Miami in March 2021, his dreams of ever competing at Kona again hung in the balance.
But 15 months later O’Donnell is back and qualified again for what will be an emotional return to the ‘Big Island’ for the 2022 IRONMAN World Championship.
It’s a period in his life which even he describes as “a rollercoaster and a wild ride” and he sat down with six-time Kona king Mark Allen to talk about his journey from an incredible second place in Hawaii in 2019, to the horrors of a heart attack, to racing again.
He explained: “It even started before that – I broke my foot six or seven weeks before the race (Kona in 2019) – didn’t think I was going to be able to start. Ended up having the performance of a lifetime for me. I was just so excited, finishing second, it was ‘okay let’s roll, we’re really going to build off this’.
“I was 39 at the time, doesn’t matter, was racing better than ever, so I was really excited. And then obviously 2020 rolled around with the pandemic and everything got shelved.
Tim O’Donnell on heart attack
“Then in March of 2021 in Miami I suffered a heart attack on the bike. Somehow finished the race, which I don’t advise doing. Please don’t do that if you have signs and symptoms of a heart attack while you’re racing…”
O’Donnell’s heart attack was serious, and it left him questioning many things – including his own mortality. Not at all pleasant as his second child with former IRONMAN World champion Mirinda Carfrae had only just arrived in the world.
“Went to the hospital, had a stent put in, had a soft plaque rupture, over 80 percent plus blockage at the top of my LAD (left anterior descending artery), pretty serious stuff. Very lucky and grateful to be here.
“At the time my son Finn was only eight weeks old, so It was kind of a tough pill to swallow when you’re facing questioning mortality at that point in your life with a young child.”
The heart attack was completely out of the blue for O’Donnell, but hindsight tells him the warning signs were probably there, and that they were probably masked by outside forces.
“Actually at the end of 2020 I had gone to see a cardiologist here in Boulder, run stress tests, calcium scans and there wasn’t anything glaring at the time, particularly with my level of fitness. So we kind of just kept trudging forward.
“And to be honest too, with everything going on with the pandemic, was it long COVID symptoms or a lot of anxiety from our worlds being turned upside down?
“As professional athletes our careers just got put on hold right away. We obviously couldn’t race and make a living in that regard. Obviously a stressful time for everybody, so there were all these other factors masking what was really going on.
“Even when I was in the emergency room in Miami the cardiologist did not think I was having a heart attack. He’s like ‘we’re gonna go inside your heart and look around and see, but the way you are now, this couldn’t be a heart attack’.
“Then he got in there and he’s like ‘oh crap’. He said he’d be in there a couple of minutes and 30 minutes later or whatever he’s still poking around in my heart, so I knew something was going on then.”
Green light to race again
One of the major questions for Tim once he was building back to health was whether he could race again at elite level. The answer, thankfully, was in the affirmative.
“Last year was all about rebuilding, I didn’t know if I’d be able to race, able to come back. Whenever you suffer a heart attack, they’ll clear the block, they’ll put a stent in, open up the artery, but there’s almost always damage to the heart tissue as well so you have to work through that on your way back.
“Thankfully everything was really minimal in terms of the damage done. I just decided, ‘hey, you know what, I still love racing, the doctors have given me the okay. Let’s see what I can do, let’s see if I can get back to Kona and hit that start line again’.
“It really wasn’t until the beginning of this year that I got into training rhythm so I wasn’t surprised that a a couple of months later I wasn’t quite fit enough to perform the way I would like for 140.6miles, but I got about 127.6 of the 140.6 right, so I gotta figure out the last 13.”
Important advice for others
O’Donnell is delighted to be racing again, and heading towards Hawaii, courtesy of that recent third at IRONMAN Des Moines. But he has other things he is very thankful for too – notably the ability to relay an important message and words of advice to people who one day might be in his position.
“I think it’s a silver lining in all of this that I’m here to able to talk about this and share the story with others. Number one, know your family history – I did not and a lot of heart disease issues are genetic.
“In hindsight I did look back and there’s a long history of cardiovascular disease in my family. Just remember that however fit you are, you can’t fitness your genes.
“Remember that you’re not invincible. I think a lot of us as endurance athletes, we’re so fit, we train so much, we’re so mentally strong. that we can deal with a lot of stuff that maybe is more serious than we think it is.
“Then pay attention to chest pains – if you feel like someone’s sitting on your chest or tightness in your chest. Spreading pain from the centre of your chest outwards. Shooting pain down your left arm. Your jaw locking up, particularly your left side. They are all signs that you might be having issues with your heart. Please go get it checked out.”
O’Donnell also talked warmly about the amount of support and feedback he has received – not just from people who share similar stories to his.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot and I’m glad I’m here to help educate others. And I had so much feedback with people reaching out, either sharing their stories but also people that have prevented serious issues because of my story.
“So I’m humbled that I can be out here and helping raise awareness.”