Swimmer Ivarsson Puts Heart on the Line for GCU
By Cooper Nelson
What is the biggest fear for an athlete?
How about facing a potentially life-threatening condition and believing that you might never again be able to participate in the sport you love?
If you want the answer, ask GCU swimmer Johan Ivarsson.
Ivarsson, a junior, is an accomplished swimmer for GCU, holding school records in 100- and 200-meter backstroke and being named an All-American in the 400 freestyle relay in 2010. He also has won medals in national competition in his native Sweden.
In October 2010, his second season with the Antelopes, Ivarsson began to notice something out of the ordinary while in the pool.
“I was more stoked than ever for last season, but something was wrong,” he says.
He wasn’t able to maintain his usual times and started to wonder why.
“You know (from your times) where you are at,” he says. “I didn’t feel weak, but I couldn’t perform.”
He also noticed that his heartbeat felt arrhythmic.
Ivarsson took a few days off from training and went to a doctor for a checkup. He was examined for mononucleosis and Valley fever, but neither presented itself. Then he was called in for an EKG (electrocardiogram) test.
Doctors discovered from the EKG that Ivarsson had a nerve condition known as Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome.
“The doctor said it was probably best to have surgery,” Ivarsson says. “You can live with it, but it’s not good to practice (swimming).”
On Dec. 2 of last year, he underwent a procedure known as ablation, in which the heart is burned to form scars so that electrical impulses can travel more efficiently.
Although the procedure was daunting, Ivarsson kept a positive disposition.
“I have third-degree burns on the inside of my heart,” he says. “Not too many people can say they have that.”
He used the time off to see his mother and sister from Sweden. While back home for Christmas break, he got in the pool for the first time since the surgery. He was able to compete in a meet in March.
Things didn’t go as well as Ivarsson had hoped, and his times were slower than before the operation.
“I wasn’t back to where I was, but I was close,” he says.”It was frustrating — I had a hard time. The mental part was the hardest part to get over last semester.”Since then, however, he has worked to regain his form. He was able to swim in the Swedish nationals, and he was part of the GCU team that set a B-cut standard in the 400-meter medley relay against the University of the Incarnate Word recently.
His coach, Steve Schaffer, is impressed.
“Johan showed a tremendous amount of courage and determination as he worked back into shape after the operation and through the summer,” Schaffer says. “When he first started back, it was a struggle for him and I was not at all sure he would be able to make it.
“I prayed a lot and he worked very hard, and now he is in a position to make it back to the NCAA Championships.”
Overcoming a life-threatening condition isn’t enough for Ivarsson, however. He wants to be better than he was before the surgery and to compete at the highest level.
“I don’t want to compare myself to other people,” he says. “I want to compare myself to myself.”