Strong Heart, Strong Will

  • By Brian Kuppelweiser
  • |
  • April 19, 2013 03:22 PM
  • |
In the sport of rowing, overcoming pain is commonplace.

In fact, a 2009 study from the world-renowned University of Oxford found that rowers who exercised together were able to tolerate twice as much pain as when they trained on their own.

For West Virginia University rowing senior Rachelle Purych, it was an unforeseen pain that wasn’t able to be harnessed that nearly ended her outstanding career with the Mountaineers.

Last year, as Purych was undergoing testing with the Canadian U23 national team, she began to experience a shortness of breath. This wasn’t just your normal fatigue that occurs during training, however, as Purych described being able to feel every beat of her heart in a way that she had never felt before.

“If I had kept going, I would have blacked out,” Purych said after she stopped the training. “After that, I didn’t really think much more of it.”

Following the incident, Purych carried on with her usual training for the season and returned to Morgantown from her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.

Once back, Purych was speaking with some of her teammates, when she uttered a phrase that may have foreshadowed what was to come.

“I made a joke coming into this season that I had never had any type of injuries or anything. I had never had an injury or broken bones – maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” Purych said with a laugh.

Her problem, though, was no laughing matter.

When training began for her season, Purych started to experience many of the same feelings she had when testing for the Canadian U23 national team – shortness of breath and a sensation of feeling her heartbeat.

“When I came back and started to train, it just started to act up again,” Purych said. “I have a tendency to push through things, but finally, I got to the point where I had to do something about it.”

After a series of test by doctors, Purych was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, which is defined as a condition in which the heart can beat too fast, too slow or irregularly.

“What basically happens is your heart goes into an erratic rhythm, so everything just kind of goes off,” Purych said. “You have trouble breathing, and you feel like you are having an asthma attack. After we went through that long series of testing, we determined it wasn’t anything that required an invasive surgery. It was a bit of a relief when I found out it was something that could be taken care of pretty easily.”

Purych underwent a cardiac ablation, which works by scarring or destroying tissue in your heart that triggers an abnormal heart rhythm.

Following the procedure, Purych returned to training, but something didn’t feel quite right. It was soon discovered that the condition had returned.

“After I had the procedure, I thought the recovery was going well,” Purych said. “They said that I was only the second individual to have the condition at WVU. Right before my follow up, I was still feeling it. I didn’t know what to expect, so I didn’t know if that was normal. I tried to ignore it again, but it wasn’t going away. They gave me another test, and it had come back. I had to have the procedure again. You are thinking that the first time was just a fluke, and it is fixed. When it came back, it takes your optimism level down.”

Not only was Purych’s optimism cut down, but the doctors began to have doubts about whether Purych would be able to compete again.

“My doctor was a little bit skeptical about it,” Purych said. “He thought I was going to have to stop – that is something that upset me. Whenever someone tells me something like that, that gives me more reason to prove them wrong. I am so used to being able to push my body through things, but this was something that was different than pain – this is your heart.”

Despite doctor’s doubts, Purych didn’t have to look far to find someone that had her back during the entire ordeal.

“Rachelle is one of those teammates who you expect to always be there,” said coach Jimmy King. “When she was out due to her arrhythmia, I expected her to make a full return. When we found out she would need a second procedure, I still expected her to make a full return. Like most athletes, she has had her highs and lows, but I have always expected her to be there in the end.”

In total, Purych missed about five weeks of critical winter training in November and December.

“That is our winter grind, and we put in a lot of work on the ergs (ergometer) and in the weight room,” Purych said. “I definitely wonder if it robbed me of some of my conditioning at the beginning of the season, but I feel like I started off well.”

After resuming her training in full after her second procedure, Purych came back and provided leadership in her role as one of the team’s captains – a position that she has been in for the past two seasons.

“Last year when we started talking about team captains, some people mentioned to me that I would be a good choice for team captain, but I kind of laughed it off,” Purych said. “When the voting came around, I was flattered, but I didn’t expect people to see me that way. I quickly realized that I can have a bigger influence on the team. It just made me more aware of what I was doing. It made me less afraid to be a little more vocal in certain situations.”

Now, with her senior season over halfway complete, Purych and King have had a chance to reflect upon the success that has been achieved during her four years with the program, including garnering the program’s first Big 12 Boat of the Week honors on April 9 and Conference USA Boat of the Week Honors on April 9 and April 16. In addition, Purych has twice been named a Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association Scholar-Athlete, is set to graduate in May with a degree in advertising and currently maintains a GPA of 3.97.

“When I came in as a freshman, we wouldn’t make it out of certain heats,” Purych said. “At the Knecht Cup, I can remember not making it out of the heat, but we made it to the Grand Final last weekend. It has been amazing to see how far we have come since my freshman year.”

“Rachelle and our rowing program have grown together over the past four years, each benefiting the other, each now better because of the other,” King said. “The growth of our program over the past four years has been paralleled, perhaps mirrored, by Rachelle's growth as a student-athlete at WVU. The progress year-to-year doesn't appear significant, but when looking back to where we were – where Rachelle was – four years ago, the change is quite remarkable.”