Competing Collegiately with a Chronic Illness

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

4 Lessons Learned While Competing Collegiately with a Heart Condition

I am so blessed that I was able to compete as a college athlete while having a congenital heart defect. I know that the statistics of CHDers that get to compete in athletics alone are slim, and I will never take for granted the gift I was given. Even as a blessing, competing at a higher level did come with its challenges. For those that are new around here, I played volleyball my freshman year of college and I was a track athlete (high jumper) all four years. I am constantly asked about my experience competing collegiately with a chronic illness, and I love sharing my experience. I truly believe it is a unique part of who I am, and I am so grateful for the teammates and coaches that supported me along the way. Competing with a chronic illness has taught me so much about myself and is such a huge part of me overcoming my heart's condition.

Even before college, I always had to train harder and be in even better shape than my peers. There was a drive to be the hardest working athlete out there of course, but in all reality, it also took longer for me to get into shape with my heart condition. When your heart doesn’t pump blood efficiently like mine, it takes you longer to recover in between spurts of drills and intense exercise. With my heart’s inefficiency, I had to train my cardiovascular system to be able to sustain long periods of exercise like basketball or volleyball games entail. This was something I learned to see as normal, and it truly taught me discipline. It meant more time and reps in the gym and a lot more focus than I think people realized. After having my heart episode my freshman year of high school, I became even more conscious of my heart’s behavior and pushing myself too hard. Over the years I have found some tips that I believe are key to having success when competing collegiately with a chronic illness.

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Be Open with your Coaches. Whether you are a high school athlete or looking to compete collegiately, 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. I have had some coaches that could also read when something was off. For instance, if I was breathing too hard and couldn’t’ catch my breath, I would have coaches check-in with me or pull me out of drills as they looked out for me.

Know your Limits. Growing up, I didn’t always know my limits, and sometimes I would mistake my needing to stop to be a mental weakness. I had to learn that if something is feeling off or funny with my heart, there is no reason to push myself. Being aware of how your body feels and is reacting is totally not a weakness, and it took me the longest time to learn this. Honestly, I don’t think it was until I hit college and workouts became more strenuous that I really figured this out. As a college athlete, I also 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 at around 70% effort and then have 30 seconds to recover in between. For some reason, those were just super difficult for me, and I had the hardest time catching my breath between reps. We would sometimes do 12 reps of these repeats. 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. And I had to be fine with it. As someone who is super competitive, this sucked at times because I wanted to be right in each and every drill. But when competing with a chronic illness like CHD, that is not always the reality. I had to learn to be grateful for what my body was able to do and keep moving forward as an athlete.

Make Modifications. Sometimes there were exercises that just really caused more stress on my heart than others. I know I mentioned 100 repeats in track earlier. Over time, as I got to know my track coaches, they were able to make modifications to drills I was doing that were still effective for training, but didn’t put as much stress on my heart. When I was in high school coming off of my major Tachycardia episode, my coach limited my playing time on the court to make sure I was fully recovering. I want to say she left me in for 5-6 minutes at a time, and that modification helped me regain strength while allowing me to recover properly. It also helped my overall game because I was more refreshed and had taken the right steps to make sure I wasn’t pushing my heart too far. Whether those modifications are monitoring time in a game or choosing exercises that put less strain on the heart in your daily workouts, it is OKAY to ask for modifications! 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.

Visualize. You will probably find me talking about the importance of visualization a lot if you follow my blog, and it is so true! Before every game and even 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 like me, 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 inside you as you complete every pass or make each shot 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. My doctors have also told me that my activeness from the time I was little was a key part in my heart staying so healthy. I think because I learned these 4 elements over time, I was still able to work my heart muscles without pushing it beyond my capabilities. 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 health journey in general. Here’s to good heart health and competing as CHD athletes.

PS: Do you have a chronic illness? Are you an athlete with a chronic illness? Shoot me an email at I'd love to hear your story and your experience as an athlete!

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