There are comebacks and there are setbacks. Will Walker knows all about both. In 2006, he was the Australian road race champion at 21 but four years later he was forced out of the sport because of a heart condition. His love of cycling remained and in recent years he enjoyed a successful return to competition. For 2014, the plan was to race for Baku and he started the season by being part of the breakaway in the national championships last Sunday… but then his pulse raced to 270bpm. He stopped the race. His career once again hangs in the balance.
Back in 2010, when right ventricular tachycardia left him unable to perform the most basic of duties – let alone race his bike in the WorldTour – he explained the condition in a column for RIDE Cycling Review (#47, volume 01, 2010). While we await the diagnosis of what happened on Sunday, let’s revisit his story from 2010…
En early end to a career (from RIDE #47, published in 2010)
What happens to a cycling career when you are diagnosed with right ventricular tachycardia… as happened to William Walker.
He was one of the most promising talents in Australian cycling. The national champion from 2006 when aged just 21 was ready to take on the world but then a heart condition was diagnosed and Will Walker had to consider his options.
– By Will Walker
It’s been a long time since I last wrote an article for this magazine and the story I’ve got to tell this time is less about cycling than I would like. Actually, my life is entirely different now. In April 2008 my column was titled: ‘Turning bad luck around’. I’d had a few hassles but felt certain I could cope. Filled with optimism, I was back on course for another season of professional racing with the Rabobank team and confident that I could resuscitate the situation.
But there’s a lot more to it than just surviving a crash with a car towing a caravan during some early-season training.
I didn’t tell the whole story last time. Yes, I explained the Bells palsy which I had about 18 months ago and how I was lucky to make a good recovery. As for the caravan, it hurt but my wounds did eventually heal and there was no long-term damage because of it. (Still, I would advise others to stay well clear of 4WDs travelling at high speeds close to the verge of a road with big mirrors and a portable home attached.)
But to top off those few hindrances was something else slowing me down. What I never expressed was a matter I was still coming to terms with: right ventricular tachycardia. Yep, a problem with my ticker; my heart was giving me grief. It wasn’t broken but it was damaged. And it still is.
This is the reason I had been struggling for the last few years of my cycling career. It was a job I started doing when I was young and one I stopped before the age of 24.
It’s a condition that causes the heart to beat rapidly which can be life-threatening. As you can imagine, it’s not the best condition to have as a pro cyclist. It’s hard to describe actually how VT feels when it strikes while you’re riding; when it happens you feel desperately short of breath and like your heart is going at a million miles an hour.
I did my research. Looked into the condition, found out why it happens, considered the treatments and consulted with surgeons. And apparently there was good news to report: there are procedures you can undertake in order to cure the VT. Phew! Or so I thought. Alas, I’ve tried four times but the results are not encouraging. There was some respite, but it didn’t last. The benefits were only very briefly felt and then my heart went back to its stubborn, rapid-beating ways.
Normally the VT originates from an area in the right ventricle and, when tracked, can be ablated successfully most of the time. My case was more complex as my VT seemed to originate from a few different areas which makes it harder to treat. While all this was going on, and I waited for each of my four hospital procedures, I continued to race. During 2008 it was with Rabobank and then I switched to Fuji-Servetto for the start of last year. This was definitely not the best idea. It’s what I wanted to do at the time but because of my enthusiasm my condition only got worse.
The Tour Down Under in 2009 was as bad as it got. It was the worst that it has ever been for me. Every couple of minutes I had a bout of VT which may have only lasted a moment but quickly made me think of the end of cycling.
Many times every hour I found my heart racing. I could feel it in my chest and the number on my monitor just kept growing: 180, 200, 220… but then the SRM couldn’t register the number any more. I knew it was beating fast. You can feel these things happening in your body. Doctors have examined me during an episode and my heart would thump along – for a period of about 10 seconds, at times – at over 300bpm. It would go higher still. When it got close to 400 for one surge, it was clear I had to start considering another vocation.
At the Tour Down Under, I struggled to stay in the peloton and the stage to Victor Harbor was the worst. It was a minor miracle I was able to finish in the front group that day after being dropped on most of the little climbs during the stage. I rolled over the finishing line panting while my heart rate continued to race at top speed.
On the morning of the penultimate stage, the day over Willunga Hill, I decided to retire from the race and seek advice from the doctors I’d been working with in Europe when I arrived back in Italy. Once I got there we began further exploring my problem and it seems that, although it was deemed “not a risk to health” by the Australian doctors, the Italians didn’t agree. They wouldn’t give me the authority to race any more.
It didn’t matter anyway, as the VT no longer allowed me to race at the level of a professional cyclist. In order to be competitive again, like in 2006, I needed to be 100 per cent healthy. I wasn’t. I was coping with the strain of the rapid beating in my chest but I couldn’t push my body too far. I packed my bags and headed back to Australia, this time for the last of my ablations.
Again the procedure was performed without success, which prompted the cardiologists to recommend a long period of rest to see if the heart would recover of its own accord.
Ten months later, with almost no exercise, my arrhythmias are still there and pro cycling is right at the back of my mind. I find it nearly impossible to think that I may ever come back because maintaining my health is too important. Even though I dedicated 10 years of my life to cycling, I’m happy with what I achieved and where it took me. But it’s over now.
Many people ask me whether it was burn-out or if I was born with it. I think the answer is that the fitness needed for a pro cyclist was just too much for my heart and, with the Bells palsy and quite often hints of chronic fatigue, it seems like my body had just had enough of the stresses of what I’d hoped would be my job for a few more years yet. It’s a sport where only the strongest can make it to the top and stay there for a long time. It’s possible that if I had taken cycling more slowly, then it may have ended differently for me. But that is not the type of person I am.
I must admit it’s a very tough transition from being a pro cyclist in Europe to going back to Australia and working in a normal job. It’s toughest because my life was set up in Italy, that’s where my future lay. A year ago I got engaged to a beautiful Italian girl, Chiara. She is studying in Milan at the moment which sees me a long way away from where she is. It’s hard but we cope. I’ve accepted a job representing Nalini in Australia which is great because it keeps me close to cycling, a sport which I love. It also works for my relationship because it allows me to regularly fly back to Italy for meetings.
Soon she will be finished with her university degree and we will find ourselves together on a regular basis which will surely help make the transition a lot easier. For me now, it’s time to have a holiday and relax as it’s the first time in many years that I haven’t had to train and race in the Australian summer. I will fly up to the beaches of northern NSW without a bike, of course, and spend my time relaxing – a thought that will surely make Chiara think that life is better without most of the day being spent on two wheels.