By Tori Geiger
I am so blessed that I was able to compete as a college athlete while having a congenital heart defect. Even though it was a blessing, competing at a higher level did come with its challenges. My athletic career included playing volleyball my freshman year of college and competing in track as a high jumper all four years of college.
I am constantly asked about my experience competing collegiately with a chronic illness. Here are my four keys to success as an athlete with CHD.
1. Being Open with Your Coaches. It is so important to communicate with your coaches. They need to know when you are feeling something that isn’t right and when you need to stop. Do not think of communicating these symptoms with your trusted coaches as presenting a weakness. They should be your biggest advocates and respect that you are in tune with how your body is feeling.
2. Knowing Your Limits. It’s a strength to be aware of how your body is feeling, and how it’s reacting to physical activity. As an athlete, I could identify the various activities that I had to be more cautious of when working out. For instance, in track, we would run repeat 100’s, where we would run 100-meter sprints and have 30 seconds to recover in between sprints. Those were extremely difficult for me, and I had the hardest time catching my breath between reps.
I was able to build up to it over time, but when I felt completely breathless and my heart felt stressed trying to keep up with my teammates, I knew I needed to take myself out of the drill and let my heart fully recover.
3. Making Modifications. My coaches were able to make modifications to drills so that they were still effective for training but didn’t put as much stress on my heart. Coaches are invested in you as an athlete, and your drive to get better and improve is something most coaches will see.
Your heart condition isn’t an excuse to not work as hard or get out of hard drills. Instead, competing with a chronic illness causes you to train smarter and be more in tune with your body. The only goal of practicing is to get better, so if you are achieving that when you are practicing, you are doing it right. If you are pushing yourself too hard and causing harm to your heart, you’re not going to get better.
4. Visualization. Before every game — and even before practice — I would visualize myself doing things well and completing drills or plays successfully. This mentally set me up for what was ahead because that is a part of the battle as well. When you have had scary heart episodes in the middle of an athletic activity like I have before, you never want to go through those episodes again.
It is easy to dwell on that fear, which can really set you up for “failure” to start. Embracing a healthy mindset about the risks of your heart condition is one thing, but dwelling on the good of what your heart can do and how it beats so strongly and resiliently inside you as you compete really empowers the rest of your body.
Being a college athlete was a privilege and something I am truly grateful for, but it taught me so much as an athlete and person. If you or someone you know has a chronic illness like a congenital heart defect, share this post with them. I hope they find encouragement in these tips and find success in their athletic careers, or just navigating their heart journey in general!
Tori Geiger is from the wine country area of Newberg, Oregon, and lives there with her husband, Devin, and adorable goldendoodle, Teddy. She is a passionate entrepreneur and has owned multiple businesses serving a variety of needs from the time she graduated college in 2019.
Tori is a congenital heart defect survivor and has undergone multiple open-heart surgeries and procedures throughout her life. Growing up, she was an avid athlete, participating in volleyball, basketball, and track in high school. She went on to play volleyball at Corban University and later join the track team at George Fox University as a high jumper.
With a heart for others affected by chronic illnesses such as CHD, Tori started a lifestyle blog where she shares lifestyle and chronic illness tips. Part of her mission is to have a “heart that beats for others,” and to help others achieve the same. Tori does this through her 50/50 CHD Promise; 50% of her blogging commissions are donated to CHD organizations. Tori has recently authored a book called From Vulnerable to Victorious: Turning Your Chronic Illness Into Your Victory Story that tells about her journey with CHD as a young woman and athlete and how she has been able to turn her battle with CHD into her victory story.
When Tori is not blogging or running her businesses, she loves traveling, cooking with her hubby, running, and paddleboarding.