You gotta have heart: The Emma Carney story

This report filed – October 9, 2006
By Timothy Carlson

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Nothing could crack Emma Carney’s will, her unshakeable faith in herself, her willingness to push herself past the normal, sane person’s limits. But at a workout pool in Edmonton Canada in 2004, she had gone well past the point when her work ethic, the strongest set of legs in the antipodean universe and the hard-set jaw and dark, wraparound shades could intimidate this opponent.

“I was there to race and did a swim session where I felt very weak pushing off the wall,” recalls Carney, who had struggled with an undiagnosed condition for five years after what was to be her final World Cup win in 1998.

“I felt very weak but I told myself ‘No, I’m gonna bloody well finish it.’ My heart started beating in my chest really hard. It felt like a panic attack. I thought “I’m getting pathetic! Why should I feel nervous before a race?’ I thought about all the turmoil the past five years, wondering why I could not win. And when I got out of the water, I could hardly breathe. It was so hard to breathe, I told coach Bill Davoren I did not feel well. And he said we’ll get you back to your hotel.”

Carney, who had always intimidated with her strength and had projected a Darth Vader persona to her rivals, was a loner by choice. Which made it even more unusual when she told Davoren, “I don’t want to be left alone.”

On the way back from the workout, Carney sat in the team van and felt as if the world was closing in. “My heart was beating so fast, it felt like everything was tightened up inside. I felt like I was suffocating.”

When the driver let off the two-time World Champion and the team masseur, Carney could not stand up and sat down by the side of the road. “Warren,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to die if you can’t help me. So if you could run get help to get me to a hospital, I’d sure appreciate it.”

As she saw the masseur run off down the road, Carney recalls thinking, ‘Shit. I sure hope he comes back.’

Almost overcome with the memory, she now adds, “I was on the ground and my heart was banging away worse than I’d ever imagined. I was panicking and could not see or hear or talk.”

The ultimate Aussie tribute

Near the end of her three-season apogee as the invincible, virtually unbeatable, best-in-the-world Olympic distance triathlete, Emma Carney was paid tribute by her fellow Australian and fellow 1997 World Champion Chris McCormack. “Emma is hard!” said McCormack, extolling a distinguishing characteristic of Australian triathletes that make them great – and vulnerable.

The way Macca admiringly rolled the single syllable out of his mouth, the word was as rich in meaning as it was short. All Australian athletes know precisely what it meant – an unrelenting willingness to do shockingly long training at fearlessly high intensity and compete with ruthless ferocity. The equation was simple: Whoever did the hard yards, the hard miles, impervious to the pain felt by ordinary men and women, reaped the rewards. The derivation came from Australia’s roots: Australia was settled by convicts booted out of England who had to be hard to survive the long sail and the harsh conditions in this rugged continent.

“When they write the Australian encyclopedia, it’s Emma’s picture they’ll put under the definition of hard,’ ” said McCormack, offering the ultimate Australian compliment. Hyperbolic or not, he put Carney ahead of certifiable hard men of Oz like Brad Beven, Greg Welch, Greg Bennett and Miles Stewart.

Her bright shining record

And why the hell not? At that point, Emma Carney had set a seemingly unbreakable mark of 12 straight ITU World Cup wins from June of 1995 through April of 1997. Then, after a narrow loss to two-time World Champion Michellie Jones at the 1997 Monaco World Cup, Carney started right up with another streak of four World Cup wins and put a second ITU World Title that November as a bookend to that stunning first Worlds win in Wellington, New Zealand in November of 1994.

But more then the impressive numbers, it was the way Carney did it. A national class 3000-meter runner with a 9:07 personal best (the Olympic record is 8:35.96), Carney tried her first triathlon as a lark in the spring of 1993. She swam like a brick with eggbeaters, and then overcame a seven-minute deficit after a 700-meter swim to win. That night, her father David, an accountant by training who was the Australian Nike rep, read an international triathlon magazine, compared the splits with his daughter’s marks, did some calculations and sat Emma down.

The prediction

“It’s 18 months until the world championship in Wellington,” he said. “If you learn to swim and train, you’ll be the best triathlete in the world.”

After Emma got over her astonishment, she recalled, “My father went over everything I had to do point by point and it all made sense.” Crazy as it may have seemed outside the Carney clan, Emma made good on her father’s prediction, taking the 1994 ITU World Title by a record margin of 2 minutes 12 seconds.

Although she worked hard in the pool, Carney never solved that leg and for the rest of her career never came out of the water much less than 90 seconds down. For the better part of three seasons Carney just powered through the bike and turned on the afterburners on the run, closing with a final 10km somewhere between 34 and 36 minutes. In the process, Carney took on a set of established superstars who had ruled the early days of professional short course triathlon and shut them down on the fledgling draft legal ITU World Cup circuit.

For the better part of three years, with the exception of two World Champs where she suffered from viral infections, and some North American non-drafting classics like Chicago, Carney whipped the likes of Michellie Jones, Jackie Gallagher, Carol Montgomery, Karen Smyers, Isabel Mouthon and everyone else in the sport that soon was to go to the Olympics.

No regrets

“Looking back, normal people ask me if I was sorry I did triathlon, or if I had it to do over, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone so hard every time out,” says Carney. “But I say it was my nature and so I’d probably do the same again.” The same weeks of 35km swims, 200-kilometer bike rides and 80 kilometer runs – all hard kilometers.

The Domination: A double edged sword

“And there was another reason I raced so aggressively,” said Carney. “I believed that people remembered what you did in your last race. People remembered how you had dominated last time and that gave me an edge.”

Carney also derived her edge by raising her own bar beyond the very capable women she competed against. “The way we worked it out, I first looked at triathlon the way I would as a runner. In world-class women’s running, the women ran about 92 percent as fast as the men. For Olympic distance triathlon with a world-class field that meant the top woman should finish about 10 minutes behind the best men. For the run, that meant finishing three minutes slower than the fastest man. When I was at my best, I tried to be no more than 10 minutes behind the men for the whole triathlon and within three minutes of the fastest man on the run. Most of the time I managed it.”
 
Thinking back, after all she has been through, Carney manages a little chuckle at her own expense. “Looking back, it was a silly way to approach things,” she said of her large margins of victory, including a record 2:12 for her first world championship in 1994 (her first ever international race!) and a few World Cups in which the runner-up was nearly five minutes back.

“I always raced so hard that maybe it contributed to damaging my heart. Having said that, I probably was unable to approach it differently. That was just the way I was wired – all or nothing. I was very much someone who if you said ‘Oh you didn’t have to win by two minutes,’ I’d just ignore you. I didn’t understand racing any other way. At the end of the day, that was very destructive on the body.”

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Respect from a rival from another era

Carney earned World number 1 ranking in four years – 1995 through 1997 and into 1998. Even in this attention deficit world of modern sport where nine years ago might as well be the Dark Ages, some of today’s athletes with an old fashioned sense of honor and sportsmanship remember what Emma Carney did.
 
“I can’t put myself in her category,” says Vanessa Fernandes. “Yes I have a number of World Cup wins. But Emma Carney is a great athlete who won world championships. And I have not done that. ”

Numbers: After Carney’s career hit that injury-afflicted plateau; Loretta Harrop won five world cups and a world title in 1999, and several more after that. Then Siri Lindley had a stretch where she won 11 overall and separate winning streaks of five and four World Cups. At Cancun next month, Fernandes has the opportunity to break her tie with Carney and get her 13th straight World Cup win. That will also be her 15th World Cup win overall – well on her way to Carney’s career total of 21 World Cup wins. Who ran faster? Who was better overall? Unanswerable questions. But when it was all over, what did it all mean?

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The long hard road to diagnosis

With 20/20 hindsight, Carney sees clearly now that her heart condition began in 1998. Carney remained excellent, but after her April 12, 1998 win at the Ishigaki (by 1:48) she never won another World Cup.

The physical difference may have seemed slight to a civilian, but to someone who bestrode the women’s World Cups like a Colossus with a will of a samurai, it was a frustrating mystery. “After that first win, I felt fatigued and weak, but not so bad that anyone could diagnose it,” said Carney.

In 1998, she fell to 15th at Gamagori in July, DNF’d at the world championships in Lausanne in August, but recovered to finish fourth at the Auckland ITU World Cup in November. In mid-1999, Carney broke the metatarsal of her right foot and could not run for eight weeks. After just six weeks of training, Carney completed a near-miraculous recovery by finishing third in the ITU World Championship in Montreal. The look on her face as she edged the great Michellie Jones by a body length in a sprint for the line was ecstatic, far more open and revealing that those RoboCop looks from behind the dark shades when she was invulnerable and winning everything in sight.

In 2000, Carney suffered an emotional blow, failing to qualify for the first Australian Olympic women’s triathlon team. She finished 13th at the Sydney ITU World Cup behind fellow Aussies Michellie Jones (1st) Nicole Hackett (6th) and Joanne King (11th). At the ITU World Championship in Perth two weeks later, Carney finished 7th, behind fellow Aussies Nicole Hackett (1st) and Michellie Jones (3rd). Due to Australian Olympic team criteria that allowed Australian selectors to choose someone with a superior recent record suffering from an injury during selection races, 1999 World Champion Loretta Harrop was given the third and final spot on the team. Carney filed suit to overturn the selection, but lost her case.

During this long period of competitive purgatory, Carney’s will never flagged and she won some events which kept her hopeful – the 1998 Australian National Championship, the 1999 Australian Long Course Championship and in 2000 she won the Australian long course and sprint nationals, as well as the Edmonton International and took third at the Mrs. T’s in Chicago. Still, at age 29, Carney was struggling to make the top 10 on the World Cup circuit she once ruled.

Banging her head on the wall

“It was a shitty time,” recalled Carney. “I could not work out why I raced so slowly. And my reaction to racing badly was to train harder – which was the worst thing I could do for my heart. I spent a lot of time banging my head into the wall, training myself into the ground.” Still, Carney approached her racing with the same drive – and alone. “I suppose I was always a very solitary competitor, ” said Carney. “I am from Melbourne and most triathletes were from Sydney or Queensland. I never made friends with the women who were my rivals. I stayed very close with my family.”

Waking up in the hospital

“If Warren had taken more than five minutes, I was done,” said Carney. Sitting in the hospital in Edmonton for a week, she then returned to Australia. “The doctors found it very hard to diagnose, because my resting heart rate when I am asleep is about 21,” she recalls. The big pump worked like a diesel to propel her to all those wins. Now it fluttered like a hummingbird when she was having her attacks. “When they put me on an MRI, the machine set off alarms that my heart was beating so slowly (the mark of a very fit runner). So they adjusted the machine when I took the test.” That strong athlete’s heart, even under cardiac arrest, was her ace in the hole.

“In a funny way, what damaged my heart through training also made my heart so strong it adapted to the abnormal rhythm of an attack – so it also saved my life.”

Diagnosis

When the doctors evaluated the spells of 200-plus beats per minute the diagnosis was familiar to the triathlon world as the syndrome that caused fellow Aussie superstar Greg Welch to retire – ventricular tachycardia. Basically, when Welch or Carney would call for an anaerobic sprint, the body’s electrical impulses that regulate heartbeat went haywire. Instead of the powerful, regular, high volume of oxygen-carrying blood, the VT sufferer’s heart went super fast and out of control.

“After banging my head into the wall for so long,” said Carney, “my heart finally said enough.”

There was some consolation. “My dad said ‘Well, now we know what it is and perhaps we can do something about it.'”

Involuntary retirement, resultant enlightenment

But as it turned out, identifying the problem didn’t provide the long hoped-for solution. On October 2, 2004, doctors implanted an ICD – Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator – in the bottom of the right ventricle of her heart. “Basically, it’s a wire through my heart which generates a steady impulse when it detects abnormal rhythms. When it works, it’s hard to explain what it feels like. The best I can describe, it feels like holding opposing magnets in each hand and they fight against one another. The heart wants to go really fast, and the opposing magnet works to slow it down.

“If that does not work, it shocks the heart to restart it.” No one who has not experienced such a shock can have a shadow of an idea how horrible it feels. “When you get a shock to the heart like that, it feels like you are hit by a cricket ball in the head,” said Carney. “Your teeth are on edge, you remain in a bit of a shocked state, and your mouth tastes like you’ve eaten tinfoil.”

After the patient experiences an ICD shock, they are required to visit a cardiologist. “I say ‘I’m sorry, I’ve exercised too hard.’ And I have to admit I’ve been training.”

Carney explains that her case is different from Welch, who finally found he simply had to forego any strenuous exercise. “The doctors said you cannot exercise at all,” said Carney. “I said ‘Fellas, I cannot accept it.’ You see, I tried doing nothing at all, but my heart got worse. I found when I did not exercise and made any sudden move whatsoever, it set my heart off. But if I exercised a little every day, that kept it under control.”

But even as she managed to walk that thin, tricky line with her physical heart, Carney found other, more important things beyond her control.

Real Tragedy

“The year after I had the implant, my older sister Jane was diagnosed with cancer,” said Carney. “”And we lost Jane earlier this year. She died. That is when you realize what life is all about.” After her ICD implant Carney spent a great deal of time with her sister, who was just 16 months older.

“Jane had just had her first child,” said Carney. “Doctors said that the birth somehow brought on the cancer – being pregnant. Now I see all the mums with their newborns and I think ‘Why could she not have that?’ Jane worked all her life to be able to have that child. She was a fully qualified person who had just got her life organized. She had a great husband. They lived in a beautiful house in Melbourne. They had a beautiful new baby. Why had it been taken away from Jane?”

Emma Carney, who had never stopped to reflect on her way to the top and in her stubborn drive to come back, took that hammer blow hard. “At the end of the day, Jane was a better person than me,” said Emma. “She always laughed. She was always lot more friendly. When she died, I just thought of the phrase ‘Only the good die young.’ I remembered when I didn’t die of a heart attack in that hospital in Canada, my friends joked that I was too horrible to die. Someone said ‘They had to put Emma in the hospital with heart problems to make her realize she had a heart.’ Very funny.”

When Emma Carney was having her heart problems, she thought, “This is really hard.” But after watching Jane die, she thought “I saw my sister die and life come to an end. That was a well of anguish that surpasses anything I’d ever seen or felt in life. I’d been obsessed with winning. But there was so much of life I’d just never thought about such things before.”

Emma remarks that her mum and dad were upset when she had her heart attack. But after Jane died, they have a kind of incomparable crushing sadness as if the sun went dark and never came up again.

Looking back, looking forward

Emma Carney thought back to her old self. “I remember Les McDonald (ITU President) said to me once “Emma, there is more to sport than winning. You should learn about the places you go to.” I thought it was a waste of time. Now I know there is so much more to life. Meeting great people. Going to great places. But I was obsessed with winning and it worked for me. So now when I’ve come home and with the lessons I’ve learned since, it’s the experiences that are hard that I’ve grown from.”

So now if she carefully avoids the kind of intense spurt she was once famous for, she can do quite a lot. The other day, she finished a full Ironman-length bike ride none the worse for wear. She hopes one day to keep it all under control and finish an Ironman.

“I’d like to part of it all,” she says. “I didn’t start triathlon because I could win. I did it because I loved it.”

And one day she went for a ride with her father David. They share a bond almost closer than blood itself – he the architect and navigator of her ambition, she the willing instrument of his vision. Perhaps taking it so easy was still too foreign to their old habits, their happy relationship.

“I went for a run and took my dad and I had a heart episode,” said Emma. “My dad got all serious and I said “Dad, give me a phone. I have to call an ambulance. My heart is all funny.’ My dad was in a severe panic. I said ‘Oh, Dad, get over it!’ My dad was saying ‘This is really serious’ and now I laugh at situations like that. It’s hard to accept that I’m ill.”

Paradigm shift

Her perspective has shifted very far from the old days. “I have worked out how short life is, and I don’t want to be fretting about the small things any more,” she explains. “I used to be trashed after training and anyone who made noise after 8 o’clock I thought was so rude. Now I answer the phone at 10 or 11 at night or whatever. My circle of friends has widened. I am definitely more sociable.”

When Emma Carney tells stories on herself, even across telephone lines that stretch halfway around the world, one thing comes through crystal clear.

Her laugh.

It’s rich. It’s clear as a bell. It comes often. 
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