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Swimming Gave Her a Heart of Gold

January 07, 2002

When Inger Jessen took the gold medal in swimming at the 1999 Transplant Olympics in Budapest, Hungary, at the age of 58, she did it for a 19-year-old boy who died in a car accident and his family. They had made it possible.

But there was a time when Jessen, who lives in Huntington Beach, couldn't walk across a room, let alone swim across a pool. At 39, she had been diagnosed with cardio sclerosis, an inherited condition that causes rapid buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. The same heart condition killed her father at age 60 and her son when he was only 30. Over the years, she had double bypass surgery, angioplasty, triple bypass surgery, a valve repaired and a stent placed in one of her blocked arteries. But even after all that, her heart was still failing. Her only hope, doctors told her in 1994, was a heart transplant.

As she waited for her number to come up, Jessen felt her condition worsen.

"I couldn't breathe very well or even walk from the car into the house without help." The call came in May 1997. Within the hour, she was at USC preparing for her life-changing surgery.

It was while taking a water aerobics class at her local YMCA as part of her therapy that she heard about the World Transplant Olympic Games coming up in Budapest and decided, though it was a long shot, to try to compete. She found swim coach Mike Ruffner through a local college. Although they only had two months to train before the games, Ruffner told her: "If you believe you can get there, I'm the guy who can help you."

They trained five days a week, starting slowly with a lot of monitoring. At every session they worked on stroke mechanics, speed and endurance. At the games, her first event was the 50-meter breaststroke, which, she said, she swam in honor of the family who made her new heart possible. She won the gold. The next day, she won the bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke.

At the U.S. Transplant Games in Orlando, Fla., in 2000, she again won the gold in the 50-meter breaststroke, and at the 2001 World Transplant Games in Kobe, Japan, she took home the silver. Along the way, she lost 35 pounds. At 5 foot 6, she weighs 165 pounds and plans to lose more. At 60, Jessen swims the 50-meter breaststroke in 59 seconds, which, if she were competing in a normal masters group in her age group, would place her in the top 10, says Ruffner.

To keep her competitive edge, Jessen walks a mile a day, attends her water aerobics class three days a week and works out with Ruffner five days a week for an hour and a half.

Her sights are set on the 2003 Transplant Games in France, for which Ruffner has high hopes for his student: "We have not yet peaked in terms of her potential."

*

THE CLIENT

* Inger Jessen (before), who was diagnosed at 30 with a heart ailment, could barely cross the room before her heart transplant.

* Now 60, she has won medals at the U.S. Transplant Games and the World Transplant Games and has set her sights on the next international competition in 2003.

* She can swim a 50-meter breaststroke in 59 seconds.

*

THE TRAINER

Mike Ruffner, 36

Background: Part-time swim coach for Newport Beach Aquatics Swim Club. Took five athletes to Olympic trials in 2000 games. Has coached swimming professionally for 15 years.

Personal best: Ranked No. 1 in the world in his age group for 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. Won national championship last August.

Key in this case: "Inger is very positive, and that makes my job easier. Many skeptics told her she would always be restricted. I didn't believe that was any way to go through a second chance at life. And neither did she."

Personal fitness routine: Swims six times a week for one hour and 15 minutes. Light calisthenics (50 push-ups and 500 sit-ups) daily.

Philosophy: "So much of athletic success is mental power. They said Barry Sanders was too small to play football, they said Mugsy Bogues was too short to play basketball.... When people say they'll never have the body they want, I say that's your choice."

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