Heart Failure Not Enough to Alter Young Athlete’s Ironman Dreams

Several years ago, doctors at Mayo Clinic told Kari Turkowski that she was entering stage 2 heart failure. Today, despite her condition, those same doctors are now helping her prepare to compete in this fall’s Ironman Wisconsin competition.

Because Kari Turkowski has been an athlete her entire life, the fact that she'll compete in an Ironman this fall isn't surprising — until you realize she'll do so despite a diagnosis of heart failure.

Kari Turkowski is not your average athlete. As a student at St. Cloud State University, she earned a spot on the school's volleyball, hockey and track teams. After graduation she hoped to continue that athletic lifestyle, with a goal of playing professional beach volleyball. But those California dreams took a sudden detour one day during a training run. "Something just didn't feel right," Kari tells us. "I couldn't keep my normal pace."

Thinking she was simply getting sick, Kari initially "shrugged it off" and tried training again the next day. "But I started getting that same kind of feeling," she tells us. "I checked my pulse and I could tell it wasn't in rhythm."

The reason would go undiagnosed for the next two years, WCCO-TV reports. Then Kari made an appointment at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. "They were able to see that there was a lot of scarring going on in the left ventricle of my heart that was causing the arrhythmias, and they saw the dilation of my ventricles as well," Kari tells the station.

What this meant, WCCO reports, is that Kari was entering stage 2 heart failure, a condition for which she's been told there's no definitive cure. The diagnosis shook the life-long athlete to her core. "I couldn't sleep," she tells the station. "I was depressed like no other. I literally had panic attacks all the time, and it took me a while to be able to find that peace of mind."

Kari found that peace of mind through counseling and her team at Mayo Clinic. "I couldn't have asked for a better care team," she tells us. "Initially, they talked about cardiac ablation and drug therapy to see if they could correct the arrhythmias, and overall we've been able to settle things down."

She was so inspired by her care and her team, in fact, that during her treatment she decided to trade in life as a certified public accountant in Minneapolis and go back to school. Her goal? To become a predoctoral student at Mayo Clinic. "I busted my butt and was able to get into school here," she tells us. "That's been very rewarding so far, but also very challenging."

Through it all, Kari has kept her desire to compete. She recently talked with her care team about her newest athletic dream: to compete in this fall's Ironman Wisconsin competition. "When I initially proposed it, one of my doctors said, 'Why don't we start with a marathon first?'" Kari tells us. "But my mindset is, if I only get one shot at this because of my heart, I want to go for the big one."

To that end, Kari tells us she'll soon endure her third cardiac ablation to manage the symptoms of the heart condition. And as you might guess, she's not letting that slow her down. "I've been an athlete my entire life," Kari tells us. "Even as I've learned to deal with everything that I'm going through medically, if I do have to stop and turn back, I'll at least be able to say that I tried. And that's all I want — just the opportunity to see if I really can do this. And my care team has given me that and more, while also making sure that we're doing everything as safely as possible."

You can read and follow along with more of Kari's story on her website. Then, let us know what you think by sharing your comments below before using the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.