Monday, October 5, 2009
Greg Welch: Alive and Well
By: Lee Gruenfeld
In October of 1994, I sat across the aisle from Greg Welch on a flight from Kona to the mainland, grimacing as I watched a steady stream of well-wishers violate entire chapters of FAA safety regulations in their eagerness to unbuckle seat belts and run down the aisles to offer congratulations. With every hearty handshake and back thump I winced harder, until my wife Cherie nudged me in the ribs and said, "Go do something!" As I stood up and began traffic-copping the enthusiastic fans, Greg heaved a sigh of relief and whispered "Thanks, mate" as he sank back into his seat with a fresh grimace of his own.
Greg and I barely knew each other’s names at the time. I was dimly aware of him as the happy-go-lucky Aussie constantly chided for wasting his considerable athletic talent on too much partying and not enough training, too much affability and not enough seriousness. The reason for all the congratulations on the fully-loaded 747 was that party boy had just clobbered a hugely talented field of star triathletes on his way to becoming Ironman champion of the world.
The reason for all the wincing and grimacing was that, unbeknownst to the well-intended conga line of admirers, Greg had fallen in the shower the night before and snapped his collarbone. Every handshake, shoulder punch and back slap was sending bolts of pain shooting through his shoulder.
Sir Plucky swallowed it and kept smiling. You had to look hard to notice that sweat was breaking out on his brow and his legs were weakening because he insisted on getting up to greet each well-wisher and each rise was getting shakier and shakier as the pain got worse and worse. But he was determined not to let on that he was hurting. “They shouldn’t have to hold back,” he said to me of the people wanting to shake his hand.
Greg was no stranger to pain. Two years earlier he’d managed sixth place while running with a flaring hemorrhoid that felt like he was being stabbed with a red hot knife with every step. And only the year before he’d missed the 1993 Ironman because of a last-minute bike accident. He’d licked his wounds for about ten seconds before hunkering down to focus on the 1994 event, which he won with a time of 8:20:27. (Two years later he went a minute and a half faster and came in third.)
I won’t belabor all of the achievements and accolades this celebrated Hall-of-Famer has racked up, including four different triathlon world championships at distances ranging from sprint to Ironman, half a dozen national titles and Lord only knows how many something-of-the-year honors. Those have all been written about before, and you can look them up.
What I’m interested in is what life has been like for someone who, at the exact moment that he was the number one triathlete in the world and the odds-on gold medal favorite at the Sydney Olympic Games, was told that his racing days were over and he should be thankful that he was even alive.
Somewhere during the last quarter mile of the swim in the 1999 Ironman World Championships here in Kailua-Kona, Greg thought he was having an asthma attack. He had difficulty breathing and felt a painful, fluttering sensation in his chest. He stopped swimming for about five minutes and, when it didn’t clear up but at least didn’t get any worse, he started swimming again. After exiting the water he thought of quitting – something definitely didn’t feel right – but the thought was fleeting, because Greg’s decision flowchart for quitting only had two question boxes on it: Am I still breathing? Can I walk? (There used to be a third – Do I know what day it is? – but after winning the world championship on the hottest day on record he scratched that one off the list.
He felt better in T1 but out on the bike he got hit again. Lightheadedness, shortness of breath, pain everywhere but all of it emanating from his chest. It went away, came back, went away…twelve times, plus another three on the run. Each time he emerged from the episode weaker and more shaken, but still he kept on.
Only after he finished the race did he discover that he’d been competing while in the throes of a frightening and often fatal condition known as ventricular tachycardia. Riders of the Lightspeed Tachyon racing bicycle know that “tach-“ means fast and we all know what “cardia-“ is. The regulatory mechanism in Greg’s heart had gone completely haywire, turning that critical muscle into a runaway freight train. It was periodically pounding away at rates as high as 320 beats per minute, which was like holding the accelerator down with the car in Park and the engine on:
There’s only so long that can continue without severe and potentially irreversible damage.
That Greg survived the race was remarkable. That he finished in eleventh place was the stuff of legends.
In early 2001 surgeons implanted a combination pacemaker/defibrillator in his chest. The former tries to maintain steady rhythm in his heart. The latter is another story. An on-demand device that only kicks in when needed, the defibrillator is a modern marvel of electronic brains and miniaturization, a cardiologist-in-a-box whose only job is to detect when the heart’s normal ballet of electrical signals descends into a break dance of chaotic impulses that threaten to kill its host. When that happens, state-of-the-art circuitry jumps into action and counterpunches with stronger signals that overwhelm and thereby tame the heart’s errant ones.
A miracle, right? A source of comfort to the wearer, who is keenly aware that the gizmo is ever-vigilant and will jump to the ready and so there’s little to worry about, right?
Okay, picture this: Greg goes out for a walk, blithely minding his own business, and gets about a hundred yards from the house when an invisible, malevolent gnome swings a sledgehammer in a wide arc and slams it into the middle of his chest. Stunned and breathless, Greg goes down. About two minutes later, when he’s able to breathe again, he looks around, sees no one there and realizes what just happened. As he tries to get to his feet, the hammer hits him again. As he did during his last Ironman, Greg refuses to stay down and forces himself to try once again. This time he gets halfway home when WHAM! It happens again.
By the time he staggers back to the house and drops onto a couch, he’s in too much shock to dial 911. The reason is that the gizmo in his chest does its thing by slamming an 800-volt lightning bolt into his heart, which feels a lot like, well, getting an 800-volt lightning bolt slammed into your heart. Every defib episode is supposed to result in a hospital visit, but he’s had six of them in the space of twenty minutes and it lands him in intensive care for three days, where the miracle gizmo kept hitting him anyway.
So, yes, the thing was keeping him alive, but having a bomb in your chest with the timer set on “Random” is not quite the same as chicken soup and a hug from Mom and, all in all, a far cry from how the world’s greatest triathlete envisioned his future.
That was in 2003, the worst year of his life, but it ended with a turnaround. Surgeons cut into the femoral artery in his leg, threaded a catheter into it and pushed it clear up to his heart, where a miniature camera identified spots of ventricular damage and a second device fried them into quiescence. A little adjustment in medication, three months of recovery, and the awful shocks stopped.
But…the runaway v-tach episodes didn’t. When his heart spontaneously decides to run a marathon at sprint speed, his pacemaker goes into a special mode in which it tries to pace the heart faster than its intrinsic rate in an effort to break the tachycardia before it progresses to ventricular fibrillation. It will try this “antitachycardia pacing” trick half a dozen times or so and, if it doesn’t work, the device surrenders by delivering that 800-volt uppercut. So far it’s worked every time, but each episode is a “Psycho”-class nail biter that’s keeping Greg off his surf board and off the golf course. There’s hope, though: A new procedure he’s investigating might finally rid him of his membership in the cardiac Russian roulette club.
What keeps him going under circumstances that routinely crush people into clinical depression?
“His wife and kids,” offers Paula Newby-Fraser, longtime friend and many-time Ironman champion. “He adores those girls and wrapped his life around them.”
During Ironman Japan in 1993, Greg got hit head-on by a car and broke both his clavicle and a wheel on his bike. There wasn’t much he could do about the collarbone, but as for the wheel? Sian Welch, who was also competing, gave hers up so he could finish the race, which he did, coming back from 60th place and winning it. (He went straight from the finish line to the hospital, where he was visited by race officials who informed him that he’d been DQ’d for receiving outside assistance. He didn’t argue, even though Sian wasn’t an outsider but a competitor, because none of the officials spoke a word of English and it wasn’t until the next day that he finally learned what they were trying to tell him .)
Years later, Sian threw Greg another lifeline, this time in the form of Emma, little sister to first daughter Annie. At the very nadir of his medical odyssey, Greg got the message loud and clear. This is why you fight. This is why you need to stay alive.
It worked. They’re why he gave up stand-up paddling and other beloved sports that, while benign for most of us, were potentially lethal to him.
They’re why , when he occasionally and inevitably feels himself slipping into the abyss, he only has to think about his girls to pull himself out and shake it off.
Close friends can tell when it happens. “He disappears for a few days,” Newby-Fraser says, “and that’s how we know he’s had an episode. He’s not interested in sympathy, so he slinks off, gets over it, and comes back.”
Sir Plucky doesn’t complain, he isn’t bitter, and he’s damned if anyone is going to see him give even the appearance of being down or feeling sorry for himself.
“I was dealt those cards and I played them right from the get go,” Greg says. “When I got the word that my athletic career was over, I was stunned for about ten seconds, and then I started thinking about two things: staying alive and what’s next.”
Staying alive is something the rest of us rarely think about as a deliberate activity, but for Greg it became as routine as brushing his teeth. The Olympic-caliber frat boy gave up alcohol, caffeine and anything else that could be remotely classified as a stimulant and threaten his heart.
He shrugs it off lightly. “They said they were dangerous, so that was it. No way do I deprive my kids of a Daddy because I felt like having a beer.”
As for what he would do next, that turned out to be easier than giving up pub crawling with his mates. How do you parlay charm, radiant affability, the gift of gab and uncanny athletic insight into a new career?
You go on television. Greg’s became a WTC employee, the go-to- guy for expert on-air commentary who also hosts Webcasts, acts as technical advisor and is deeply involved in anti-doping. For the past few years he’s also been Oakley’s global sports manager for multi-sports, outdoors and track and field.
“I bloody love it!” he exclaims. “I get to see all the guys I used to compete against!” And they get to see Greg without having to compete against him, so it’s a win-win all the way.
To say that nothing teaches you more about life than a brush with death is a cliché but, like all clichés, it’s grounded in truth. “Life is so fragile,”
Greg muses in a contemplative moment, “and so worth protecting.” He’s talking about his daughters and he realizes that, while he can’t wrap his arms around them forever, he can take care of himself both physically and spiritually and thereby afford them the benefit of not just his presence but his outlook. To grow up around someone who doesn’t take life for granted is a gift
To be that someone is a blessing.