Focus. Intensity. Determination. Tenacity. Courage. Commitment. Endurance. These are core traits of resilient people, but an Olympic champion is totally dependent on them.
Developing and achieving each character trait can also save a life. I believed in each and was confident in my prowess as an athlete, but I discovered they were critical in the fight to preserve one’s health. That said, there is one word I omitted that is the perfect combination of all of those words, and is the true blueprint for success in any pursuit: relentlessness. And I am relentless in my pursuit to prevent and stop blood clots.
LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU MAKE PLANS
Throughout my swimming career and at its pinnacle, I was relentless. Swimming was all I knew. I broke American and World records in swimming, won eight World Championship titles, became the youngest member on the 2004 US Olympic team at 15 years old, and won three medals at the 2008 Olympics, but I had not yet won that elusive Gold Medal. I felt I was ready. I was young and life held such rewards ahead. So, with my sights set on the Rio Games in 2016 and my quest for gold, life happened…and life is what happens when you make plans, right?
Three days before the National Championships in 2014, I felt a pain in my chest and sides that I thought were signs of a cold but it forced me to withdraw from the competition. For seven long weeks, I was misdiagnosed with a variety of other things including a muscle strain and asthma, until I demanded a blood test and CAT scan that revealed two blood clots in my lung. Due to the buildup of scar tissue caused by blood clots, my lung capacity had significantly decreased, so competing at the highest level was no longer a viable option.
STOPPING THE CLOT HAS BECOME KATIE’S QUEST FOR GOLD
Embracing this and accepting this was truly devastating, but I realized I had to find my new purpose. The traits I believed in had to kick in, so I announced my retirement from swimming in 2015. Though this decision was the most difficult of my life, I also decided to become extraordinary in another pursuit: learning as much as I could about blood clots, helping to raise awareness of them, and to be relentless in finding a way to prevent them from happening in others.
I have recently been named as the official ambassador for the National Blood Clot Alliance (NBCA), a 501c3 non-profit, voluntary health organization dedicated to advancing the prevention, early diagnosis and successful treatment of life-threatening blood clots such as deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and clot-provoked stroke.
THE NATIONAL BLOOD CLOT ALLIANCE, SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
Through my work with NBCA, I am empowered to transform my own traumatic and life-altering experience into one that allows me to understand on a deeper level just how serious Pulmonary Embolism/DVT can be. I don’t want others to experience the same fear due to lack of knowledge, information and support prior, during and post a pulmonary embolism.
I would also like to increase awareness of the symptoms and signs of a PE/DVT from the physician AND patient side which in turn will save lives. Competitive amateur and professional athletes have a tendency to think that they are seemingly infallible or immortal. WRONG! We are also trained to ignore and push through pain, yet all the warning signs are there. What are some of the most important things to help prevent blood clots?
- Listen to your body
- Recognize signs and symptoms (swelling, pain/tenderness not due to injury, skin that is warm to the touch, skin redness, difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing, irregular heartbeat)
- Know your risk for blood clots & communicate those risks with your doctor
- Before any surgery, talk with your doctor about blood clots.
- See your doctor as soon as possible if you do have any symptoms of a blood clot. Blood clots can be safely treated.
- Get up and move if you’ve been sitting for a long time or traveling for a long time by plane, train, or car. Stand up, walk around, and stretch your legs every two to three hours and wear compression socks.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Don’t smoke or take steps quit smoking
NBCA IS A SUPPORT COMMUNITY, AS WELL AS A GO-TO EXPERT RESOURCE
I would also like to create and develop a better post survival community. The fight against blood clots does NOT end after you ‘just’ survive. Patients need resources, support and a community so that life after a blood clot can feel normal and free of fear and stress. The mental health component is by far one of the most important pieces that is missing right now and I want to provide that through my work alongside NBCA.
Finally, I realized two things: that it’s ok to not be ok, especially when one’s health and life is at risk. I also came to learn that we are not alone, so don’t beat yourself up and feel like it’s just something “in your head” or that no one else has had a similar experience. Be patient (as hard as it is) and take each day step by step.
Blood clots are extremely serious and more people have come face to face with them than most realize. It is one of the leading causes of death and yet it is not talked about enough! With the right information, technology and resources, I believe these numbers can be cut in half. Nobody should have to be misdiagnosed and face the fear of the unknown like people are currently experiencing today. In fact, during just the last decade or so, there have been significant scientific breakthroughs in the treatment of blood clots through oral anti-coagulants, and in the process of how blood clots form, advancing the cause of prevention. Let’s not stop in breaking through that wall. Let’s be relentless together.
TAKING CARE OF YOU & YOUR HEALTH IS WHAT IS PARAMOUNT
I miss the feeling of chasing after something as extraordinary as competing to be the best in the world. I miss that feeling of accomplishment when I would touch the wall and ALL of the years of hard work would finally coalesce. But my fight against blood clots is my new chase, and there is no wall stopping me – only one to continue to push through. Raising awareness and ultimately saving more lives is the new ‘extraordinary’ for me because it will have a global impact just as breaking world records did when I was in the pool. Advocacy for everyone’s health by stopping the clot has become my new quest for gold.
As the Tokyo Olympics have come to a close, let’s congratulate TEAM USA and all the athletes on being the very best they can be in their respective sports. Let’s also remember though, that it’s ok for them to not be ok, that even though many may have not won a medal on the field, pool, board, wall, or court, that at the end of the day – everyone’s health is what’s most important. The pandemic has made the discussion of lung health a vital component at these Olympics, as well as for all of us. Achievement of great health and taking care of you is really the greatest triumph of all.
Katie Hoff is a former American competitive swimmer, an Olympic medalist, former world record holder, author of “Blueprint: An Olympian’s Story of Striving, Adapting, and Embracing the Suck”, entrepreneur, speaker, and advocate for the National Blood Clot Alliance. She represented the United States at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics