February 28, 2014
New Valves, Same Heart
By Patrick Mart
D.J. Forsyth had two heart valves replaced in December 2013. But that has not stopped him from registering for the 2014 Open.
D.J. Forsyth had two heart valves replaced in December 2013. But that has not stopped him from registering for the 2014 Open.

D.J. Forsyth had two heart valves replaced in December. But that has not stopped him from registering for the 2014 Open.

 

D.J. Forsyth had two heart valves replaced in December 2013. But that has not stopped him from registering for the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games Open.

Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with aortic stenosis—a disease of the heart valves. He and his doctors monitored the progression of the disease through annual check-ups. Last year, his doctors said it was time for surgery. Forsyth wanted to wait until after the 2014 Open, but was told it couldn’t wait.

“So when they said it was time, I picked the first possible day the next week to get it done,” he said.

Before the surgery, Forsyth searched the Internet for information on his condition. He found an ESPN article about a competitive CrossFit athlete, Ingrid Kantola, who had gone through the same heart surgery. Forsyth knew Kantola from watching her compete at the South Central Regional but had never met or talked to her. He reached out to Kantola with questions about training and the recovery process.

Kantola was happy to share her experience, which wasn’t always a smooth road.

“I shared the details of my recovery and didn’t sugarcoat anything about the pain and the process I went through,” Kantola said. “I was clear that it took a while to be ‘back,’ but now I’m better than ever.”

“My friend Alyssa Dazet, a CrossFitter at CrossFit Los Angeles, had been through a surgery like mine a few years before me,” she continued, “and served as a source of information and inspiration that I could get back to CrossFit after surgery. I think I was kind of an Alyssa for him, too.”

In December, the doctors used a saw to split Forsyth’s rib cage. Then they deflated his lungs and replaced his aortic valve with a mechanical valve. They also replaced Forsyth’s ascending aorta because of an aneurism caused by the bad valve.

After the procedure, most patients are in the hospital for at least a week. Forsyth was in the hospital for half that time and started his recovery as soon as he could.

“I was doing five air squats during commercials while home from work and that was pretty tough at first,” Forsyth said. “I was back in the gym after two weeks doing air squats with a weight vest and just kept adding things as my body could handle it.”

Five weeks after surgery he was doing double-unders. At seven weeks, he was able to start back with weights, doing light cleans. Forsyth slowly added in safety bar squats and sled pull. At eight weeks, he was back doing muscle-ups and butterfly pull-ups.

He was careful not to hit his chest hard on any of the movements, and he scaled back on the intensity. He also had to deal with dramatic weight loss—post-surgery, he lost 25 lb. in 10 days.

Still, the recovery was going strong. 

“The doctors and nurses were all shocked at how quickly I was recovering,” he said. “I was massively nervous. Everything I read said I couldn’t touch a weight or really do anything for three months.”

Kantola was surprised, too.

“He recovered faster than anyone else has, probably ever,” she said. “He was back to push-ups like five weeks after surgery. I didn’t even think about using my arms for nine to 10 weeks. But his doctors cleared him and he went back at it with focus and desire.”

“The guy loves to train,” she added. “I tried to tell him to be patient with himself but there was no need. His work ethic and drive are incredible.”

Forsyth sent Kantola videos in which he performed squats and various workouts. She came to think that he must be bionic.

This “bionic” athlete is no stranger to CrossFit competition. In 2012, he competed on the team from CrossFit The Woodlands, which finished 20th at the South Central Regional.

In July 2012, as one of five owners, Forsyth opened CrossFit PRx in The Woodlands, Texas. Remarkably, less than a year later, the gym qualified a team for regionals in its first season. Forsyth competed on the team.    

In 2014, he is eligible to compete in the masters division since he turns 40 in April. His recovery is well ahead of schedule: “I’m close to 80 percent strength and cardio-wise,” and he would love to make it to Carson, Calif.

But he’s decided to take it easy on himself this year, which means no expectations. After all, he wasn’t even sure he would be able to compete in the Open.

Next year is a different story. He’ll be 100 percent committed to qualifying in the masters division for a chance at the Games.

If CrossFit PRx qualifies a team in 2014, Forsyth said he’d love to compete at regionals again.

Outside of the gym, Forsyth has received support from many corners.

“My wife and kids are very supportive,” he said. “I have a 7- and 10-year-old that love CrossFit and love to train with their dad. They are the future of the sport and training with them at the gym is such a bonus.”

The CrossFit community has also reached out to support him. He keeps people informed through Facebook, which has helped him connect with CrossFit athletes with similar conditions.

“I get these (letters) from other CrossFitters I’ve never met before and it is the best feeling ever. I know how it felt before and being scared I wouldn’t be able to compete anymore,” Forsyth said. “Knowing these guys feel better from seeing my progress is a really great feeling.”

He inspired Kantola on the eve of a recent competition. Just 24 hours after surgery, Forsyth sent her a picture of his incision. At the time, she was driving to a competition in Dallas, Texas.

“The event started with a ruck in the dark and I thought about him a lot during our 5-mile run,” Kantola said. “The ex-military man who briefed us reminded us that while we were out in the cold with 20-lb. bags, ‘It could always be worse.’ It made me thankful that I was past surgery and I pushed to keep going knowing that D.J.’s journey back was just beginning.”

In January, the two finally met in person. Kantola described it as “like seeing an old friend.” She says they are “forever connected as scar buddies.”

Forsyth admits he still has some difficulty with movements like burpees and chest-to-bar pull-ups. What’s more, he hasn’t done a workout full speed since before the surgery. He’s nervous but has full confidence that he’ll finish the five-week competition. 

“My goal is to do my best and be able to do all workouts 100 percent,” he said. “Anything more than that would be very unexpected and a bonus.”