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Champion rower’s battle with a major heart condition

Rob Waddell won gold at the Sydney Olympics, but he underwent life-changing surgery on his heart eight years later. He is now enjoying a normal life thanks to the incredible treatment he received from New Zealand’s expert cardiac surgeons.

Reflecting on living and competing with atrial fibrillation

When 25-year-old Rob Waddell became the single sculls Olympic champion in 2000, he burst onto Kiwi TV screens as a titan of rowing. Little did they know that in the background, he was suffering from a hereditary heart condition that threatened to derail his promising career.

“That year, I also got the world record for the 2000 metre indoor rowing machine fastest time,” he says. “I was pushing myself extremely hard.”

Even when Rob had just left school, he felt the aches and pains of constantly working his body to the limits.

“Around that time in certain races, I started to feel my heart was acting strangely combined with a huge loss of power,” recalls Rob. “It was very frustrating because I had it in the back of my mind that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Diagnosis comes as a relief

“I finally talked to my uncle (Dr Norman Sharpe, former Heart Foundation Medical Director) about how I felt. He was a professor of cardiology at Auckland University. Because of him, I was on the path to being diagnosed with a real medical problem.” 

After running several tests, doctors discovered that not only did Rob have an enlarged heart, but he was also suffering from atrial fibrillation (AF). This common heart rhythm problem can cause stroke and heart failure. 

“I was training for the Olympics at the time, and I was hungry to win the gold medal,” he says. “So realistically, several things could have caused my AF, including stress, fatigue and sleep deprivation. 

“I also learned this was likely hereditary as my father had the same problem. My symptoms occurred far earlier in life than his, probably due to the very high mileage I was doing from rowing.” 

Rob finally knew what his body had been trying to tell him the whole time. Now it was a case of what to do next. 

“It was such a relief to find out what it was and for someone to tell me it was a real medical problem, not just something in my head,” he says. “The big question afterwards was obviously, ‘How do you solve it?’” 

Rob was advised that medication (flecainide) was a solution, but he knew it wouldn’t be a permanent fix. At this time, AF ablation, a procedure now used to treat the condition, was still in its infancy. 

Sailing, the America's Cup and back to Beijing

“Winning gold in Sydney was incredible and definitely worth the effort,” says Rob. “But I had a lot of uncertainty about my condition after that. I had this gut feeling that I couldn’t do the same in Athens in 2004 as I was worried I could not control my heart.”

Knowing that he was in his prime years as an athlete, Rob turned to sailing instead. He began training as a grinder for the America’s cup and competed with Emirates Team New Zealand in their 2003, 2007, and 2013 campaigns.

“Sailing was a great experience and involved a lot of strength training,” he says. “But I still felt the pull of going back to rowing.”

In 2008 he did exactly that. Rob had to battle it out with Mahe Drysdale in a best-of-three series for the single sculls spot representing New Zealand at the Beijing Olympics.

“It got down to the final race. I chose not to medicate directly before because I hadn’t really had any problems with my heart over the previous eight years,” he recalls. “As it was, I left my medication sitting in my car and even though I finished that race, I was having real issues 250m into the race.”

“I felt awful after that because when you break a bone in sport, it’s obvious you have an injury,” he says. “When you have a heart condition, it’s not as visible for people to see, but it’s equally debilitating.”

Professional advice leads to surgery

“Over several years, I came to terms with the condition I have,” he says. “Every time my heart went off, I realised I had to do something about it – it wouldn’t just go away.”

In 2009, Rob consulted Dr Martin Stiles at Waikato Hospital, whom he credits with putting his life back on track.

“He was a legend,” says Rob. “It took a long time for me to get my head around ablation surgery, but now I’m living a happy and healthy life thanks to the expertise of Martin and his team. I realised I could get the absolute best care in the world right here in New Zealand.”

Rob eventually decided to have a catheter ablation. This procedure is designed to interrupt the abnormal electrical circuit in the heart by burning or cauterising the scar tissue or electrical nerves causing the problem.

“It was a long procedure,” he says. “Around six or seven hours. I was aware of what was happening the whole time. In this operation, the wires go through the leg and up to the heart internally. I was a little anxious because there can be complications, but the risks of not doing anything for me were worse.”

Outlook and advice for others

“In the end, the procedure went well, and I haven’t needed any other procedures since, which isn’t always the case,” Rob says. “I feel very fortunate but also just glad that I was so well informed and thankful to all those around me that helped.”

Rob has always held a special regard for those seeking to understand more about the heart, including researchers and surgeons from New Zealand.

“As time advances, the procedures get better and technology keeps improving,” he says. “It’s these things helping me and people like me to live fuller, longer lives.

“I’ve had a larger than normal heart since I was born,” he says, “and from what I understand, most doctors would initially see it as some sort of heart disease. But now I have it under control, and it’s all because of the surgery and some lifestyle changes – mainly not rowing 240km a week!”

Rob no longer pushes his body or heart to the extreme lengths he used to, sometimes rowing for a maximum of one hour a day instead of four.

“There are little things you can do to change your health, and they all have an effect,” he says. “I have to continue exercising because it’s what I love. I had a decent run of competing as an athlete, but I enjoy much more of a balance now.”

His message for others who might be in the same position as he was, contemplating surgery, is this:

“Surgery can’t be taken lightly. It’s a massive step. But I took the decision because it was getting to a point where my heart seemed to be affecting everything I did. If you get to that point and surgery is where you’re choosing to go, you should know that there is a lot of information available now and some amazing people here in New Zealand who can help greatly.”

Shared November 2022

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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2 Comments

  • Raewyn 20 November 2022

    I am suffering from this and going through this very scary journey with lots of hospital visits. Hoping to have ablation as this debilitating illness dictates your life.

  • Prue 18 November 2022

    Well, at least I’m in good company- I always exercised, but not to that extent. Haven’t yet considered ablation, though it seems to be the ‘go-to’ treatment in America

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