In the end, it wasn't Kari Turkowski's heart that put a premature end to her Ironman triathlon dreams earlier this month, but bacteria-laced water from Lake Monona, near Madison, Wisconsin. That's where Kari did one final training swim ahead of the Sept. 10 competition. "Fifteen to 20 minutes into the swim, I started coughing," Kari tells us. "I'd ingested some water, but I didn't think anything of it."
She "felt fine" Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, however — the day she had worked so hard for — her cough returned "700 to 800 yards" into the event's opening swim. "I knew it wasn't my heart because I know what my heart does when it's acting up," Kari tells us. "It was nothing like that."
Kari knew her heart's tendencies well. She lives with stage 2 heart failure, a condition she and her Mayo Clinic care team have managed through cardiac ablation and drug therapy. Even after the diagnosis, Kari — a life-long athlete — never lost her desire to compete. "When I initially proposed it (the Ironman competition), one of my doctors said, 'Why don't we start with a marathon first?'" Kari told us back in May. "But my mindset is, if I only get one shot at this because of my heart, I want to go for the big one."
Back in the water, Kari pressed on. She rested momentarily on one of the rescue kayaks, but her cough persisted. She tried removing her wetsuit to give her lungs a chance to expand. "At that point, I had roughly 1.7 miles left to swim," Kari tells us. "To keep going, I had to go into a breaststroke while keeping my face above water."
A team of doctors paddled over to Kari and began running her medical history. When they discovered her "very in-depth heart history," they urged her to come out of the water for fear she was having a heart attack. Kari refused. "I really felt like it wasn't my heart, so I asked them to just trust me because I wanted to finish on my terms," she says.
With one of those doctors then paddling beside her, Kari continued swimming. Even though she came up "50 yards short of the finish line," as the Pioneer Press reports, those on shore gathered to give Kari a winner's ovation as she came out of the water.
"It was pretty emotional the way I finished that swim," she tells us. "It was really beautiful and really helped confirm that you don't need to cross the finish line to be an ironman. We all have it inside of ourselves. We just have to find it. That's really what I took away from all of this."
That and the comfort of knowing that her heart proved to be up to the challenge. She was rushed to a local hospital after the race to rule out a heart attack, and "everything with my heart checked out great," Kari tells us. "It turned out that I had pneumonia, which had been progressing since that training swim."
Kari tells us she's yet to decide about another ironman event. "I'm leaving it open," she says. "But right now, there is a part of me that's leaning toward giving it another shot." (We had a hunch she'd say that.)
Take your best shot at leaving us a comment below before using the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.