TCU Daily Skiff Thursday, February 12, 2004
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Heart disorder can’t keep Champ from pool
A congenital heart disorder ended Lisa Champ’s competitive swimming career, but it didn’t stop her from continuing to contribute to the team.

By Andy Donovan
Skiff Staff

It was just another swim meet for junior Lisa Champ.

On Nov. 16, 2002, she won the 100-yard backstroke, and contributed to the winning 400-yard freestyle relay in the TCU women’s swim team victory over Centenary College.

As she went to go celebrate with her team, she spotted her parents on deck, who had just driven down to see her. They didn’t seem to be in the celebrating mood.

They informed Champ that her older sister, Kristen, had died suddenly that morning from heart failure. Unbeknownst to Kristen or her family, she had suffered from Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder affecting the skeleton, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.

According to the Henry Ford Health System Web site, 30 percent of cases are ‘sporadic,’ meaning there is no history of the disease in the family and is the result of a spontaneous mutation.

Kristen was part of that 30 percent.

One year later, it was just another TCU football game when Champ was taken to the hospital after complaining of chest and throat pains.

The doctors checked her out, and everything seemed fine. She was free to go, and for the moment, she was relieved.

Champ then told them what had happened to her sister the year before. She had never been tested for Marfan’s after her sister died, partly because she said she didn’t really even want to know if she had it.

They immediately took her in for a CAT scan.

The X-rays showed one of her aortas had dissected and was leaking out dangerous amounts of blood. They would have to perform open-heart surgery to fix the problem, and it would have to be now.

“It is kind of ironic,” she says now of the situation. “My sister’s death is what essentially saved my life.”

Champ admits she has always been very athletic. She says she is at her happiest when active and doing something.

“I always liked being up and about, just mainly because I could,” she says.

Champ was born in Madang, Papau New Guinea, where her parents John and Marie were Christian missionaries in a small village. At a young age, Champ spent a lot of her time swimming around in the ocean.

At age 10, they moved to Canby, Ore., where Champ first started competitive swimming. Since then, she has been named a high school All-American, Conference USA champion and TCU record holder in the 400 freestyle relay.

After the surgery was complete, though, Champ was ordered to stay in her apartment for a few weeks until she could fully recover from the surgery. No school, and especially, no swimming.

“In the beginning, I realized it would take time to get better,” she says. “But after a few weeks, it was getting very hard to be patient. I was ready to get back in.”

Champ had to learn patience, though.

The doctors had told her it would be at least three months before she could even touch water again, and even then, it would be very limited in the amount of activity she could do. Not only that, she would be on blood thinning medication for pretty much the rest of her life.

Her competitive days in the pool were over.

Richard Sybesma, head coach of TCU’s swimming and diving team, remembers visiting Champ the night she was taken to the hospital.

“I left there after they first said she was going to be all right,” Sybesma said. “I got the news later on in the night that they had to perform surgery. I was shocked, but most of all, I was scared.”

After the surgery, Sybesma wanted Champ to know that she was still part of the team, even if she could not compete anymore. The coaches decided to bring her back on the team as a manager.

“I think Lisa needed to be around swimming,” Sybesma said. “And we definitely needed her around as well.”

In the three years Champ has been on the team, Sybesma says she has been the true example of a student athlete, in and out of the water. He says she has kept one of the highest GPAs on the team, while also being one of the most dedicated.

“She definitely always put her whole, no pun intended, heart into swimming,” Sybesma says. “I think she has always been a role model, and after the surgery, she became our inspiration.”

Champ said it was very difficult recovering from the surgery. Luckily, it was what many, including Champ, refer to as a fast recovery It’s something Champ attributes to her physical shape before the surgery, and more importantly, her parents.

She said they always brought her up to be a really strong Christian, and taught her that faith is the one thing you always need in life.

“It was hard in the beginning not to ask God those questions, ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why did this happen,’ ” Champ said. “Eventually, I came to the understanding that God was saying, ‘Here, I want you to go in this direction now.’ ”

Jan. 18 was not just a regular day for Champ, however. Her wait was finally over.

It had been exactly three months, and she could now finally get back in the water. It is nothing like her workouts before, but she says she still looks forward to it everyday.
Today, she sits on a bench at the TCU swimming pool during practice, leaning up against a window. Also lying on the bench is a T-shirt design that reads, “Train like a CHAMP – Win like a CHAMP,” something the team and coaches came up with as a way to remind them of their inspiration this season.

All she can do now is watch as her teammates rack up the yards in practice. All she can do is cheer them on when they go after the Conference USA championship in February.
This may not have been how Champ imagined her junior year was going to be, but she continues to smile.

“I try to focus as much as I can now on the benefits,” she said. “Everything that has happened to me has just made me value all I have in life that much more. It may sound cliché, but it is so true.”
Sarah Greene/Staff Photographer
Keeping her head above water: Junior Lisa Champ takes a breather after doing laps Wednesday afternoon in the pool at the University Recreation Center.
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