Heart trouble hits ‘skiing queen’

Marit Bjørgen, Norway’s cross-country skiing queen, was admitted to St Olavs Hospital in Trondheim over the weekend after suffering irregular pulse and heart beat. The heart trouble, coming just months after Norway’s star swimmer Alexander Dale Oen died of a heart attack, is forcing Bjørgen to drop the biggest event of the ski season this year.

Norway’s Marit Bjørgen (left) celebrated after winning the women’s 15-kilometer pursuit at the last world championships. Now it will be up to teammates including Therese Johaug (right) to win the Tour de Ski. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

Bjørgen, who already holds several World Championships and Olympic gold, had been enjoying a great start to this year’s ski season and was hoping to become the first Norwegian skier to win the upcoming but gruelling Tour de Ski, a series of seven tough races that starts December 29 and runs for nine days around Europe.

On Friday evening, though, the 32-year-old skiing champion felt heartbeat irregularities, reports Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The irregularity continued on Saturday morning, but Bjørgen went ahead with her scheduled training sessions, after which she also registered abnormally high pulse.

“She didn’t feel in shape at the beginning of the session and then became unwell,” Egil Kristiansen, head coach of Norway’s Norway’s national women’s ski team, told NRK. “She kept training, though, and felt better.”

Bjørgen collapsed after winning a 10-kilometer (six-mile) race in less than half an hour at the last world championships, but was said at the time to be simply exhausted. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

He said her pulse stabilized but concerns over arrhythmia, a condition tied to irregular heartbeat, prompted her to contact her private doctor, who immediately hospitalized her Saturday evening. She stayed overnight for observation before being released on Sunday.

Kristiansen called the heartbeat irregularity “relatively not dangerous,” but noted they “weren’t taking any chances.” He doesn’t think the heart trouble will end Bjørgen’s career. “The only thing I can say for sure is that she won’t be skiing in the Tour de Ski,” he told NRK.

The Tour de Ski demands an “enormous” amount of exertion, he said, and it’s important that Bjørgen doesn’t put too much strain on herself right now. Sports officials and top athletes, not just in Norway, were shocked when Dale Oen died of a heart attack last spring and has raised concerns of heart ailments. Other top athletes, also in Norway, have recently suffered heart problems as well.

Bjørgen’s doctor, Hans Petter Stokke, told NRK that Bjørgen’s heart trouble is not the same as the artery disease that was determined to have killed Dale Oen. Extensive testing on Sunday by a team of heart specialists failed to find any such illness or other problems.

“There is nothing wrong with Marit’s arteries,” Stokke told NRK, “but we are certain she had disturbances in heart rhythm before she came to the hospital. That’s why we will continue to monitor her.”

Norway’s men’s and women’s ski teams had a total of 12 athletes ready to participate in the Tour de Ski. Kristiansen said Bjørgen was “absolutely the strongest candidate we had” for an overall victory. Now teammates Therese Johaug and Heidi Weng will have greater possibilities but also greater responsibility with Bjørgen out of action.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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