Shock and training concerns arise after champion swimmer’s death

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Alexander Dale Oen wasn’t just Norway’s best swimmer ever. He had become a national icon of hope and goodness in a nation still grieving over last summer’s terrorist attacks. While shock dominated reaction to his sudden death at the age of 26, questions were also rising over athletes’ intensive training programs and performance, and how top athletics can, for some, have deadly consequences.

Alexander Dale Oen after winning Norway's first world championship in swimming, at last summer's 14th FINA World Championships in Shanghai. He died Monday evening of apparent cardiac arrest. PHOTO: Shanghai-FINA 2011

Condolences were still streaming in on Wednesday after Oen was found dead, apparently of cardiac arrest, less than three weeks after arriving at a special training camp in the high country of northern Arizona.

“This is terribly sad … news you just can’t accept, you simply can’t believe it’s true,” another Norwegian sports champion, downhill skier Aksel Lund Svindal, told news bureau NTB. “When I think about Alex, it’s about someone who was always so positive. I have never heard him say anything negative, and from everyone who knew him well, I heard lots lots of praise. He was just a great guy through and through, and a great athlete in a major sport. Perhaps Alexander Dale Oen was Norway’s greatest athlete ever.”

Other athletes from pro-golfer Suzann Pettersen to Olympic rower Olaf Tufte to speed skating star Håvard Bøkko and football player John Arne Riise also expressed shock and grief, as did top politicians and sports officials. Many gathered spontaneously at Norway’s top athletic training institute in Oslo, where the flag was lowered to half-mast even though it was the May 1st national holiday. The church in Oen’s home town of Øygarden near Bergen on Norway’s west coast, opened and filled with mourners. Professional football matches nationwide began with a moment of silence in tribute to the man who just three months ago was awarded the country’s highest sports honor, “Athlete of the Year.” Norway’s national athletics federation was supposed to show its new collection of clothing on Thursday that Norwegian athletes will wear at the Olympics in London this summer, where Oen was to be captain of the national troop. The Olympic fashion show was cancelled.

‘Swam with my heart’
Oen was being widely credited in Norway this week for symbolizing the nation’s grief after 77 persons were killed in the terrorist attacks, and for raising Norwegians’ spirits (external link). He had to compete at the world championships just a few days after the attacks, won the gold medal and cried on the winners’ platform as the Norwegian national anthem was played.

“I swam with my heart, and not my head,” Oen said later when he dedicated the gold medal he won at the world championships in Shanghai to the terror victims in Norway. “If I could contribute with a miniscule bit of cheer, that’s fine, but at the same time, a gold medal can’t weigh up for what happened back home.”

It was apparently his heart, however, that stopped functioning on Monday evening when he was once again far from home, in Flagstaff, Arizona. Police are conducting a routine autopsy and official results aren’t expected for a few weeks, while the swimming team’s doctors and everyone around Oen claim he had showed no signs of health problems other than a shoulder injury last winter from which he was recovering. He had what they described as an “easy” training session and even played a short round of golf on the day before he died.

His sudden death, however, follows heart failure suffered by several other top athletes in recent years. The intensive training they undergo is raising concerns that those at risk for heart ailments can be vulnerable to cardiac arrest.

‘Not necessarily healthy’
A top Norwegian cardiologist, Dr Per Ivar Hoff of Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen, told newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday that “maximum top athletic exercises are not necessarily healthy.” Hoff said that a high degree of training can disturb the rhythm of the heart “and we can’t rule out that it can influence other forms of heart disease.”

Hoff stressed that athletes’ training generally has more positive than negative effects. There’s little question, though, that top athletes subject their bodies to enormous endurance contests, as witnessed by cross-country skiers collapsing at the finish line and football (soccer) players collapsing on the field.

Another Norwegian cardiologist, Dr  Thor Edvarsen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that many persons can have inherited a genetic heart defect without knowing it. Both Edvardsen and Hoff, speaking on general terms and not specifically on what happened to Oen, said that cardiac arrest in persons under the age of 35, with no prior warning or signs of heart trouble, are often tied to genetic causes. Intense athletic training and activity can cause the cardiac arrest, Edvardsen said, adding that “it can happen suddenly and brutally even if you’ve been examined by a heart specialist beforehand.”

Other doctors agreed that top athletes can be more vulnerable to heart trouble. “They live a bit on the borderline in terms of how they use their bodies, regardless of what sport they’re in,” Dr Gard Gjerdalen told newspaper VG. “It raises the risk of cardiac arrest if you’ve inherited a heart problem.”

A former head of Norway’s athletic federation, Tove Paulsen, was already proposing a look at intense training programs in the wake of Oen’s death. His funeral arrangements were pending.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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