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From Heart Failure to World Competition at 73

Liz Merritt
October 12, 2017
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For 73-year-old Ken Lewis, there is no such thing as slowing down or quitting. In fact, this triathlon coach, athlete and heart patient regularly competes in world championship events across the globe.

He is acutely aware that his cardiac history — which includes a heart attack, multiple stent surgeries and congestive heart failure – would stop most men his age in their tracks. But for Lewis, the heart of a champion starts with believing he can.

Belief Trumps Everything

“My biggest love is I love to get people going, when I can get an athlete to places they never thought they could go,” Lewis says with a big grin.

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Ken Lewis at the 2017 Triathlon National Championships in Bend, OR.

He tells the story of coaching one particular athlete, a physician, to competing in a world championship duathlon. “Here’s a woman who would never have dreamed of going to a world championship. But she made it – she came in 10th – and the look on her face made everything I do absolutely worthwhile.”

As a triathlon coach, Lewis’ strength is getting athletes to world championships. “I have five athletes going to the duathlon world championships in Denmark,” he says with pride. His most-recent client win came when Adrienne LeBlanc took home the world championship Olympic distance gold for women ages 45-49.

It’s all about believing in yourself and willingness to do the work. Over the years, Lewis has coached numerous athletes to accomplishments beyond their dreams as he instills passion and dedication for the sport he loves.

The Journey Begins

Lewis competed in his very first Ironman triathlon in 1983 in England and earned his way to his first world championship event in 2004.

“I didn’t even know about triathlons and world championships before then. I was the same kind of athlete that most my own athletes are. And I didn’t consider that I could compete in a national or world event.” Yet since then, he has raced as a member of 14 world championship teams.

Lewis, who is also an accomplished civil engineer, was a founding member of the British Triathlon Association. Those early days of triathlon racing in England are in stark contrast to the tough and technical world courses he competes on now.

“I did the most civilized triathlon ever in England,” Lewis recalls. “We finished the swim and went into a shed and had a cup of tea. When we were ready to go cycling, we went cycling. We came back and had a cup of tea. And when we were ready to go running, we went running.”

In addition to his coaching business, Tri2XL Coaching, he owns KVL Consultants Inc., a civil engineering firm that specializes in flood control, storm water master planning, and developing drainage design management system software. Needless to say, Lewis is a busy guy.

Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t until 2006, however, that Lewis’ heart sent the first warning shot over the bow. He was 62 at the time and finishing the running leg of a triathlon. He was ahead of the next competitor by a wide, 9-minute margin and had first place in the bag.

That’s when an overwhelming sense of exhaustion hit him like a ton of bricks, and he couldn’t figure why. “I just thought I was tired, so I jogged in and wasn’t sure what was going on.” His wife Tricia took him to the hospital where doctors told him he had a heart attack on the course.

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Lewis and fellow Team USA athletes at the Triathlon World Championships last month in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Six years later, his heart health would come into full view once more. It was the 2012 World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. During the swim leg of the race, he was pulled from the water. That time, doctors found a 90 percent blockage of an artery in his heart. Multiple stent surgeries resulted, and Lewis resumed his love for training and racing.

In 2014, he gave Ironman another go. And he did it in style. He raced the Brazil Ironman that year, won his age group and earned a spot in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. He completed the swim but about 35 miles into the bike leg, that all-too-familiar sense of total exhaustion fell upon him.

That’s when the diagnosis of congestive heart failure hits him. “Basically, I have about 35 percent functionality of my heart,” Lewis explains. “And that means my muscles aren’t getting the oxygenation they need. I was really down in the dumps about the diagnosis. I could hardly run.”

Not One to Give Up

Lewis sought the help of Dr. Benjamin Levine, a renowned sports cardiologist in Dallas, Texas and founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

There, he undergoes a battery of tests, including a simulated triathlon while hooked up to every imaginable monitoring device. At the conclusion of the testing, Dr. Levine recommended a change in medication and gave Lewis the green light for activity. “He says, ‘Go run intervals.’ And I said, what about my heart? He says, ‘Go hard and don’t worry about it.’

“At that time, I could barely run a mile in 12-13 minutes. I came back and said, screw it. I just kept at it, and I’m just slower now. I don’t treat my heart condition like a disability.” He grins and says he blames his slower times on age.

Lewis is emphatic when he says being an athlete saved his life. “Basically, when I have an issue like this, because I’m so well conditioned, blood finds other ways to get to the muscles,” he says. “But there’s really no way to fix this (congestive heart failure), so I live with it.”

Living Life to the Fullest

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Lewis (center) surrounded by some of the athletes he coaches.

Lewis accepts his new performance norm, but that hasn’t dulled his competitive juices and determination for a second. “I can live a normal life. I train six to seven days a week, and all I have all the normal aches and pains of a 73-year-old,” he smiles.

He pauses for a moment and draws a parallel to the analytical approach he applies to engineering projects and any life challenge. “Every project has a golden key, that critical thing that results in success. If you take care of that, you take care of the person. My philosophy in life is the same. Not working out is not an option for me, because the other option is being unhealthy.”

That mindset, in fact, earned him spots on two 2018 World Championship teams recently for his age group. Lewis will be competing as a member of Team USA at the 2018 Triathlon World Championships in Australia. And he’ll be a member of Team USA for the 2018 Duathlon World Championships in Denmark.

“This has been a fun, fun year! Especially for me when I thought I was finished,” he says.

On Healthy Aging

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Lewis’ best advice for anyone of any age is to keep the body moving.

Lewis is trim, fit and lives a healthy life. He eats well and takes care of himself. He is confident his cardiac issues are genetically rooted, but no one knows for sure.

His best advice for anyone of any age is to keep the body moving. Exercise is one of the golden keys.

“You have to inch into these things one bite at a time,” he recommends. “Even starting out by walking 20 yards can be a win for many people. Then go 50 yards, then run a little and walk a little. It’s absolutely amazing what it can do for your health. It’s so invigorating.”

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