The way 16-year-old Amelia Hennessy throws the word “tachycardia” around, you would think she was talking about an annoying homework assignment.
But when the high school runner and nordic skier felt her heart beating abnormally hard to the point of severe dizziness, she knew her reoccurring problem – supraventricular tachycardia – was worse than the average teenager’s.
The issue came frighteningly front and center in August, when Hennessy collapsed at the finish line of the Bartlett Invitational cross-country meet in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Dimond High School junior had felt her heart fatigue before and almost expected its rapid beating about 2 kilometers in, but this was different. After setting a season best in the 5 k with a fifth-place finish, she couldn’t catch her breath and remained on the ground for nearly 15 minutes.
“When I crossed the finish line, I just fell,” Hennessy said in a phone conversation from Anchorage. “I was just so dead.”
In an effort to help her recover and avoid other runners trampling her, the finish-line crew urged Hennessy to get up. She remembered saying she couldn’t.
“I was like, ‘It’s my heart,’ ” she said. “I remember repeating ‘My heart, my heart,’ over and over again.”
Her coach in all three high-school seasons, Nate Normandin, crouched by her. He had seen Hennessy go through similar episodes before – during intervals, when her ski poles slipped, etc. – but this stood out.
Plagued with the heart abnormality – which struck suddenly and randomly – since at least age 5, Hennessy managed to win the Cook Inlet Conference cross-country championships as a freshman, but found the arrhythmia intensified with her training in high school.
She joined the Alaska Winter Stars nordic skiing program last summer and stepped up her fitness. According to Normandin, she came into the fall season in superior shape and had the potential to rank in the top 5 among Alaska’s high-school runners.
Of all things, her heart held her back.
“It wasn’t pain, it was just an annoyance,” Hennessy said, describing the pounding “boom, boom, boom,” which felt like her heart could beat out of her chest.
The Bartlett Invitational confirmed what she already knew; it was time to get it taken care of.
Three weeks earlier, she experienced a major episode when her heart rate hit 225 in practice. A LifeWatch monitor, which she wore in an iPod armband, recorded the data, with three suction cups attached to her body (and duct-taped in practice).
Later that evening at home, another dizzy spell prompted Hennessy to go to the hospital, where her cardiologist reassured her the condition wasn’t life threatening, but it was unusually severe. He recommended surgery.
Four days after Bartlett on Aug. 24, Hennessy underwent the heart procedure. Years ago, open-heart surgery would have been her only option, as it was for her father, John, who outgrew the genetic issue.
“Now with all the mapping, they can just go in and zap it,” Hennessy said.
She was covered with sticky pads and underwent a catheter ablation, which involved threading a thin wire into an artery in her groin and up to her heart. There, doctors detected the abnormal rhythm through X-ray guidance and transmitted energy to destroy the problematic tissue.
During the 3-4 hour procedure, Hennessy’s mother was elsewhere in the hospital, receiving her final chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Father and husband John balanced the two: first accompanying his youngest daughter then visiting his wife.
“(My dad) always knows what to do in every situation,” Hennessy said. “He never freaks out.”
None of the Hennessys seem to. If Amelia was any reflection of her family, they are a pretty matter-of-fact bunch.
“It kind of worked out because it was just one trip (to the hospital),” she said.
Runs in the Family
One day after her mother, Gretchen, had breast-cancer surgery, the fitness instructor went for a hike. She insisted she didn’t use her arms.
Amelia wasn’t much different. The day after her procedure, she ran at practice. Two days after that, she raced at the Skyview Invitational.
Her parents instinctually objected, but let the cardiologist have the final say. According to Hennessy, he gave her the go-ahead.
“My mom said, ‘You know she’s going to go all out?’ and (the doctor) said, ‘Isn’t that what a race is?’ ” Hennessy recalled. “My jaw just dropped.”
She ended up 23rd at Skyview and in a lot of pain. This time, her heart ached so bad she felt like she was being stabbed in the chest, she said. She racked it up to her heart’s wounded area where the catheter went in. Her physician said feeling fatigued and some pain was normal for two months or so.
Hennessy continued to push the pace in her recovery, placing sixth at a Big 8 meet a week later and finishing third at a dual meet in mid-September.
The pain was still there, but it seemed the post-procedural symptoms weren’t hindering her any more than the tachycardia had.
Her experience at the regional championships on Sept. 24 forced her to reconsider her bullheadedness. After another excruciating race, in which she considered dropping out, Hennessy finished 11th. She helped the Dimond High girls team qualify for states by two points, which meant seven could go on to compete as opposed to just one.
“I know I can finish the race, it’s just whether I want to go through that much pain,” Hennessy said. “I guess I did.”
There are plenty of 16-year-olds like Hennessy – so giggly and social that her coach once blamed her heart troubles on her laughter.
However, the talented runner and skier had another side that transcended typical teenage behavior.
“She’s really, really competitive and when she’s not doing well, she gets really down on herself,” Normandin said. “It’s been rough this last year and a half, especially with all the medical issues that have been going on. It was interesting to see how she was handling it. It seemed she was doing fine mentally.”
Physically, she continued to push through, he said. But the heart-clenching finishes, where she literally held her chest, showed she was dealing with something significant.
A longtime runner, Normandin had witnessed people overdoing it before. His college roommate — also a runner —went into a coma because of a lingering heart issue.
“That makes me a little bit more conservative with what I let Amelia do,” he said. “On the other side of things, I have seen what Amelia was going through for a year and a half.”
After regionals, Normandin supported the decision of Hennessy’s father, who said she wouldn’t race at states. She was disappointed, but understood their reasoning.
“They think I shouldn’t be going through that much pain,” Hennessy said.
Gearing up for the ski season, Hennessy began training with the Winter Stars and hoped she would feel better soon. Her doctor had detected an extra beat in her heart at the one-month follow-up, but said it was common in athletes and more active post-surgery. If it turned out to be problematic, she could have a pacemaker put in.
Hennessy, who watched her team at states and hosted a pasta dinner beforehand, remained upbeat.
“I think I’m just pushing a lot harder than most people would after having this,” she said.
Recently voted the most inspirational by her cross-country teammates, Hennessy said she put in some hard workouts on rollerskis and was scaling back as needed.
After qualifying for the Junior Olympics in nordic skiing two years ago, she aimed to place in the top 10 in the region and return to nationals this winter. Normandin said she could rank similarly in the state, depending on how her recovery plays out.
“She’s pretty dang focused so I think she’ll do well,” he said.
Last year at this time, Hennessy said she nearly quit nordic skiing. She had lost interest, which was remedied once she joined the Winter Stars. Now with her tachycardia taken care of and her heart on the mend, she was committed.
“My plan has always been to go to college for skiing,” she said. “I just want to make skiing my main sport. I just really love it.”
Note: This is part of an ongoing series on junior and collegiate racers in the U.S. and beyond. The nordic sports are certainly not the largest, but there are still thousands of great stories. We will be picking athletes out of this pack to feature – nominations for outstanding or interesting nordic skiers can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. We are looking for unique stories, not necessarily the fastest skiers. Nominations should include a brief explanation of why we should profile the athlete.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.