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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: Ironman Jeremy Woodward’s heart remains strong

  • Jeremy Woodward<br/><br/>Courtesy photo

    Jeremy Woodward

    Courtesy photo

  • Jeremy Woodward<br/><br/>Courtesy photo

Spielberg might have shouted, “CUT!” last month, wondering what had happened to the script.

He might have looked at Jeremy Woodward and his cardiologist, squinting and listening to their conversation, the one about Woodward’s heart and its potential to stop beating during the hardest workout known to man.

He quickly would have realized that the script had been changed, but that’s what happens in the world of heart disease.

There are no guarantees.

So Woodward, the Bishop Brady High graduate who has nearly died twice since 2000 because of a faulty ticker, did not compete in yesterday’s Ironman Arizona. He did, however, keep his role in a documentary about eight people who, after open heart surgery, trained for the race to show that nothing is impossible.

During the process, the yet-to-be-released film’s plot changed more than once. A member of the athletic cast, a guy from Washington State, died after a workout. Another competitor had to back out due to health reasons related to his heart.

Just like Woodward, who heard the news about his dilated aorta during that routine checkup mentioned above. He had figured the scene would make a nice nugget for the movie, the scene in which the doctor marvels over Woodward’s health, his determination, his comeback.

He’d already competed in one Ironman, in Lake Placid two years ago. He runs a local fitness center. He has muscles on his muscles.

Your heart is fine, Jeremy. Good luck in the race, Jeremy. That’s what he thought the doc was going to say, what he thought the filmmakers would hear and record.

“I was not expecting that, so I was kind of like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ ” said Woodward, 34. “I didn’t even know what to think. It’s not like I was a month into training. I’ve been training for almost 10 months, and now the doctor is saying you got to pull the plug, buddy. It’s a bit of a disappointment and a sense of trepidation. I didn’t know what to do, and after a few minutes it came to me. I know what I have to do.”

He calls it a “no brainer,” his choice to sit out the race, to remember what’s truly important here. “I said from the beginning, if there are any changes whatsoever, no way, I don’t do this,” Woodward said. “I got two young daughters, a wife, three very important girls in my life to take care of, and that’s numero uno.”

Woodward says he feels lucky that he has a family, that he’s even alive. Once, in the 1990s, he played basketball at Bishop Brady High, with stars like Billy Collins and Mark Yeaton and Marshall Crane. Once, he looked invincible, young, strong, worry-free.

That all changed 12 years ago, when Woodward was told he needed open heart surgery to replace his aortic valve. His new valve wore down by 2007, and Woodward again was opened up, this time receiving a mechanical valve.

That made him a member of what he calls the Zipper Club, with the 10-inch scar on his chest a symbol of pain and perseverance. Since then, Woodward has made fitness his life. He runs a workout business, after quitting the construction business. He works for Ironheart, a West Coast-based group that sponsors road races and promotes fitness awareness. And he ran an Ironman event – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run – two years ago in Lake Placid, finishing in about 15 hours.

Then came a chance to be part of a movie, part of something bigger than himself. The plan called for a documentary on eight former open-heart surgery patients, all training and showing what the human spirit could accomplish.

The Zipper Club spoke via conference call in the fall of 2011 and met in person a month later, at last year’s Ironman Arizona. Woodward says he bonded with Scott Roy, a triathlon coach from Spokane, Wash., who also had a valve replacement procedure.

“We sat down in the hotel bar and we talked for 2½ hours,” Woodward said. “We talked about his son, his wife and how proud he was. We traded stories back and forth.”

Last May, after a long bike ride in preparation for this weekend’s event, Roy called his wife from home and said he didn’t feel well. She found him on the floor 20 minutes later, dead at 38 from hardening of the heart muscle.

“We were absolutely devastated,” Woodward said. “Basically we went into panic mode and asked ourselves if we were doing the right thing, or was this absolutely crazy.”

Roy’s death became part of the film, adding an element that, while disturbing, brought realism and awareness to an already compelling topic.

Still, in what amounted to a foolish move, Woodward postponed his echocardiogram, a test using sound waves to show the heart beating, choosing to wait until the film crew got here last month.

“Life got busy and blah, blah, blah,” Woodward said. “I figured I’d get the clearance for the Ironman, and then, boom, it all changed. They got it all on film.”

Woodward says he quickly made up his mind not to compete yesterday. Of course, he discussed it with his wife, Brook. Their two daughters, ages 1 and 4, entered the conversation.

“It really made me put things into perspective,” Woodward said.

He went to Arizona anyway, leaving last Thursday. More filming was scheduled, and Woodward doesn’t know the documentary’s release date.

He does, however, know that the final product will have a lasting effect. At least he hopes so.

“I hope I am able to leave a legacy to my girls with this film,” Woodward said. “Just because I’m given bad news that you can’t participate in an event, you can still do things out of your comfort zone.”

True.

Simply change the script.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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