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Ironheart Foundation Turns Adversity Into Inspiration

By Wendy K. Leigh

At the Ironheart Foundation in Seattle, it’s not as much about living with adversity as it is about thriving with it. One in five Americans will develop heart disease in their lifetime, according to the American Heart Association. Ironheart is taking an extraordinary approach to that reality: using physical movement and sport to transform and empower the lives of cardiac patients.

From the Ironheart Racing Team to virtual event challenges and a global cardiac support community, the goal is to ultimately regain a healthy lifestyle through sport and activity. Some patients even participate in the ultimate sports challenge for any athlete, regardless of health: the world-famous Ironman triathlon, a grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

An Ironheart Foundation documentary titled “HEART: Flatline to Finish Line” chronicles the arduous and emotional journey of six survivors who literally went from hospital beds to the Ironman finish line, with plenty of tears, fears, triumphs and tragedies along the way.

It all began with Dave Watkins, founder of Ironheart, who discovered in his thirties that he had a congenital heart defect after collapsing at the finish line of Seattle’s Seafair sprint triathlon in 2002. He later flat-lined during surgery and had no heartbeat for five minutes. This lead to an eventual stroke that would have resigned most people to a life of sedentary caution. But not Watkins.

Watkins. All photos courtesy of Ironheart Foundation.

Watkins. All photos courtesy of Ironheart Foundation.

The former collegiate offensive lineman and marathoner instead formed the one-man Ironheart Racing, with a seemingly unrealistic goal of making it through an Ironman competition. In 2010, he did just that, by racing Ironman Florida, followed by Ironman Arizona in 2012, along with his fellow cardiac patients.

Today, Ironheart is a nonprofit foundation that’s represented in 49 states and 19 countries. Not all participants, however, have the same goal of participating in endurance sports. Some are just learning to walk again, while others are training for their first 5k or engaging in healthy solo activities such as yoga, dancing, cycling, hiking or martial arts. Watkins explains that it’s all about getting back on your feet again and becoming active in spite of the limitations of heart disease.

Ironman is an extreme. No doubt. To me, Ironman is just a metaphor for dreaming big and living life to its fullest potential,” he says.

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After years in the making, the documentary about the heart patients who did aspire to compete at Ironman began screening at film festivals across the globe in 2016. It also tells the stories of ones who didn’t make it. Cast member Scott Roy, a longtime triathlon competitor and coach, underwent open-heart surgery in 2010 and didn’t survive. The devastation was so severe that the project almost perished, but his wife, Tristen, stepped up to the plate and took his place. The film follows their journey across the country, from Seattle to Las Vegas, Chicago, Honolulu, Carmel and Tempe – and finally to the Ironman Arizona competition.

Documenting this extraordinary feat was challenging in more ways than one, according to Watkins. After finally announcing a recent distribution deal, through which the film will be released through multiple outlets in 2017, he described the process as the ultimate endurance test.

“You think getting through heart surgery is tough? Try doing an Ironman,” states Watkins. “Think that’s tough? Try filming a documentary about it. Think that’s tough? Try getting it distributed!  As someone who doesn’t come from the film industry, this has been a major learning curve for me. Thrilled to say we’re finally there.”  

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For an organization with a flying pig for a mascot, it’s really no surprise at all. Pigasus represents the ability to accomplish amazing things, as their motto states: Ad astra per alas porci; To the stars on the wings of a pig.

Anyone who wants to fly along for the ride, or to just experience watching those who do, can become involved and get updates on the film’s website www.flatlinetofinishline.org or on Facebook. It’s also possible to pre-order a digital download at www.heartmovie.vhx.tv.

“My message to any cardiac patient is the same,” Watkins states, when asked for words of inspiration. “Take life one step and one beat at a time.”

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