Leah Anderson shows heart on the track
The pressure of breaking a school record can cause even the calmest athlete’s heart to race.
Fortunately for Park City High School senior sprinter Leah Anderson, that won’t be a problem — chances are her heart will already be racing.
Anderson was born with an extra pathway in her heart — a condition called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) — causing it to beat much faster than normal. She can often be found doing handstands after her races or during training — a trick she’s learned over years of dealing with the condition.
"I do a lot of handstands to try to jump my heart back into rhythm," she said. "You’ll see me after workouts flipping upside down to try to get my heart back to normal."
The problems with SVT began at a family picnic when Anderson was 4 years old.
"They found it when I was really little, but it wasn’t that big of a deal," she said. "The first time I had a huge episode where I had to be taken to the hospital was when I was 4 and we went to a picnic party. I ate a bunch of hot dogs and apparently the chemicals in the hot dogs helped induce the heart rhythms that made it beat super-fast."
Many more hospital visits quickly followed, where a variety of unpleasant treatments were used to slow her heartbeat.
"From there, whenever it happened, I’d have to go to the hospital, where they’d either shove my face into an ice bucket to try to shock my heart out of rhythm or they’d flat-line [my heart] and paddle me back to life [with a defibrillator]," she said.
Eventually, doctors tried surgery to fix the problem. The first two didn’t result in a permanent fix, Anderson said.
"When I was probably 6, I had the first surgery," she said. "For that one, my heart was way too small. They tried to fry a piece of the pathway [through a process called ablation] and the pathway was too close to the main heart, so they had to pull out. It didn’t do anything, so I had to continue going back to the hospital every time I had an episode, which was probably like every two weeks to a month.
"Then I had another [surgery] and it worked a little bit. It made it so I didn’t always have to go into the hospital. I could take atenolol and my heart would mellow out."
Sometimes, though, the atenolol would work too well and Anderson would need to be resuscitated.
"Apparently I flat-lined a couple times," she said. "I don’t have any recollection of it, though. My heart would be beating so fast they’d have to give me atenolol to slow it down and sometimes it’d slow down so much they’d have to shock me."
Eventually, Anderson tried a different procedure — cryoablation. Cryoablation incorporates the freezing of the extra pathway before trying to burn it away. It’s a tricky procedure, though, Anderson said.
"The extra pathway is so close to the main part of the heart that if you kill too much of the pathway, you have to get a pacemaker," she said. "If you don’t kill enough, it’ll just grow back."
As coincidence would have it, the cryoablation surgery that finally worked for Anderson was performed by Dr. Elizabeth Saarel, the mother of former PCHS track star Ben Saarel.
"Now I’m good," she said. "It doesn’t affect me. My heart will go out of rhythm a bunch, but it’s not as bad. They bumped it down from beating 360 [beats per minute] to like 260, at most. I don’t have to go to the hospital anymore."
Still, track seems like an odd choice for someone with an irregular heartbeat. Anderson said she decided to give it a try to prove she could do it and to stop people from babying her.
"I always knew I was fast, but — going back to elementary school — they never let me run because of my heart," she said. "Finally, I was just like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to do it.’"
The start of her track career was mediocre at best. Anderson was a self-described "horrible" runner her freshman year.
"I was pretty bad, but I really enjoyed it," she said. "Dave Yocum, our coach, encouraged me and I just kept working and now I’ve come close to breaking the school record [in the 100 and 200]."
Anderson said Yocum took a while to get used to training with her and would worry about her heart.
"It scares the living daylights out of him when I run with him because he’s always worried I’m going to pass out or my heart’s going to explode or something," she laughed. "But it doesn’t scare me anymore."
"Your first thought is, ‘Is this child going to collapse in the middle of the workout?’" Yocum admitted. "It’s very unnerving. You have to get used to it. After four years, though, you realize that it’s who she is."
Anderson comes from an athletic family. Her brother, Chandler, placed third in the 100 at the 3A state meet last year in his first year on the track team and currently plays baseball for the University of Utah. Still, Yocum said, the amount of work he’s seen Anderson put in is the biggest key to her success.
"I’ve been coaching since 1981 and I’ve never had anyone work harder," he said. "She’s a very talented girl, but to know where she was as a freshman, it’s pretty amazing."
"I’m just a very competitive person," Anderson said. "Park City’s a very competitive place, so you do something to be the best of the best."
Now Anderson is closing in on the PCHS girls’ record of 12.6 seconds in the 100 and 25.8 seconds in the 200.
"My latest time [in the 100] was a 12.78, so I’m pretty close," she said. "I ran a 26.3 in the 200. My goal is just to break 25."
Her goals are to break the records before the end of the year and to do well at the 3A state meet.
"Last year, I missed finals by .01 seconds," she said. "My goal is just to make it to finals and then hopefully I can podium. I think the top five podium."
If Anderson can accomplish those goals, Yocum said he’d be a very proud coach.
"She’s put in thousands of hours," he said. "It would be phenomenal, knowing what she’s been through and how hard she’s worked."
The PCHS track squads are at the competitive Davis Invitational this weekend. The 3A state meet is scheduled for May 20 and 21 at Brigham Young University in Provo.
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