March 13, 2010

By Marty Gitlin
Special to NCAA.com

CANTON, Ohio -- Tori Heron won't be parading to the first-place platform during the Division II Swimming and Diving Championships. But there will be no greater champion crowned at C.T. Branin Natatorium this week.

Most swimmers who would have experienced the torment felt by the Grand Canyon University freshman during the past two years might never have stepped into a pool again.

The scary, yet inspiring story began many years ago when Heron started to feel her heart race on occasion. She didn't know what to make of it -- and neither did her doctors. "Oh, she's just nervous," they would say. Every time they attempted to trigger another episode to track down its cause, her heart would respond normally.

Despite the periodic abnormal heart rhythms, Heron blossomed into a tremendous swimmer at Sandra Day O'Conner High School in Glendale, Ariz. She won the 200-yard freestyle in the state meet as a junior and was fielding Division I college scholarship offers. She had ever received All-American consideration.

Then came the most frightening moment of her life.

Immediately following a race three meets into her senior season, she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Heron's condition was diagnosed as an extra pathway in the heart that forced her blood pressure to drop dangerously low and her heart rate to increase dramatically. She was officially diagnosed with Supraventricular tachycardia -- a faulty electrical system in the heart.

Heron was placed in a wheelchair and didn't walk for six months. Not only was her senior season ruined, but she lost all hope for a Division I scholarship. But far more terrifying was that she questioned her own mortality. She certainly wasn't about to jump in a pool again, even after she was freed from her wheelchair and able to walk again, albeit quite gingerly.

"I feared for my life," Heron said. "It had felt like my heart was jumping right out of my chest. I couldn't catch my breath and I would pass out. I was out of the wheelchair by January or February, but I had a walking cane at school. Sometimes I had to use the wheelchair to get around at school because I would get too tired out."

Heron returned to the pool late last winter, but only for rehab. She had to learn to walk again. She didn't anticipate ever swimming competitively again, but she eventually experienced a reawakening.

"I decided I wasn't going to live in fear because that holds you back from doing the things you love to do," she explained. "I learned not to live in fear and it definitely paid off."

It has certainly paid off for the Phoenix-based swim team. Coach Randy Schaffer took a chance on Heron, providing her with a partial scholarship. She finished second in the 200 freestyle and fourth in the 500 and 1,650 freestyles in the recent Rocky Mountain Conference Meet.

Heron took her momentum and swam with it. She made the "B" cut in the 1,650 freestyle in the Division II Championships, an achievement that made her coach quite emotional.

"When she made that cut, I got tears in my eyes," Schaffer said. "She just doesn't quit."

Heron's struggle, however, continues. She suffered through another episode after a prelim run on Thursday. She has learned to deal with the irregular heartbeats, but not to give in to them. Another surgery called an ablation has been scheduled that she believes could fix her problem permanently. The procedure sends scar tissue to block the extra pathway in her heart.

The freshman is particularly grateful that Schaffer has proven quite understanding. Previous coaches grew frustrated with her condition before it had been diagnosed. But Schaffer has looked after Heron emotionally, mentally and physically.

But the reason Heron is swimming competitively again is that she boasts the courage most others could never muster. That's why she is a champion whether or not she ever visits a first-place podium again.