New Zealand triathlete Samantha Warriner, 40, won the Ironman New Zealand title in late March three months after undergoing surgery to correct her Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), a condition that caused her heart rate to rocket up to 245 beats per minute.
A venerable name in the triathlon world, the two-time Olympian has a stacked season with no plans to slow down anytime soon. Warriner talked with espnW about bouncing back from a potentially career-ending condition while still beating women almost half her age.
espnW: You've had SVT for years. What is the condition like and what made you decide to finally have it treated?
Samantha Warriner: Basically, it's a heart condition that involves your electrical pathways creating a new electrical pulse under certain conditions. I'd usually experience it every six months or so, mostly while I was stressed, had too much caffeine or not enough sleep. I would find ways to manage it. I'd take a break or cut back on training. Then last year, I began to fade on runs during a race, or I'd just be sitting there and my heart would race, from 145 beats per minute to 245. So I took a four-week break with no training. When I started back up, the same thing happened again and I knew I had to do something about it.
espnW: You've been competing as a pro since 2005. With surgery as your only option, did you think that your time as a triathlete was over?
SW: The thought did cross my mind. But I wasn't ready to retire -- triathlon is my passion. It's my life. And I wasn't happy about the idea of stepping down from the sport while I still enjoy it so much. But this condition is actually common in endurance athletes, and the specialists I saw told me about other runners and triathletes who had returned to racing after surgery. Plus, the procedure was non-invasive. The heart surgeon went through my groin and used small instruments to ensure I'd have a quick recovery.
espnW: How long did you take to recover?
SW: I started training three days after the surgery and within a few weeks, I did a test session on the Ironman New Zealand course in Taupo, which went really well. Two months after the surgery I was back up to my typical eight-hour training days.
espnW: Did you always plan to compete in Ironman New Zealand three months post-surgery?
SW: It was always in the back of my mind that maybe I'd be OK to race, but I never officially announced my plans. As the race approached, training was going great and my heart was fine, so I decided to enter. I'm so glad I did -- winning an Ironman on home turf was one of the greatest moments in my life and a dream come true.
espnW: You compete against women in their 20s and 30s. At 40, would you say your age gives you an advantage
SW: I really do believe I am stronger and smarter at 40. And I love inspiring other women, and showing that you can get better with age. I am running and swimming faster than I was in my 20s. People want to make a big deal about my age, but to me, it's just a number. I will retire when I slow down and right now, I am not slowing down!
espnW: So what are you up to when you're not racing?
SW: I like to hang out with my husband, Stephen. He's a teacher, and we spend a lot of time apart since I travel so much for racing. I also run a coaching business for women in New Zealand ... they're real beginners to the sport. Mentoring them through the highs and lows of training and racing has given me a fresh perspective and clarity as an athlete. It's been amazing.
espnW: When you do decide to retire from racing, what's on your list of things to do?
SW: The day I retire, Stephen and I are going to start a family. I want heaps of babies. But that won't happen as long as I continue to race professionally. So right now, I'm focusing on making it to the Ironman World Championships in Kona this December, and we'll see from there.
To keep tabs on the star triathlete, follow Warriner on Twitter: @samwarriner.