Sam Gerken lay in a hospital bed after intensive open heart surgery and, for the briefest of moments, had to consider the worst. What is he couldn’t run again?
He quickly tried to put the thought out of his mind and focused on his recovery. Now, a year later, he can reflect on a remarkable path that saw him finish second in the 800 meters at the Maine Indoor Championships, and earn a berth to the Class C outdoor championships, which will be hosted by Gerken’s own Yarmouth High.
The determination to get there is remarkable. Gerken, in the center of the photo in the tweet you see above, was forced into planned but extensive open heart surgery because he was born with a condition called pulmonary atresia, essentially a faulty valve in the heart that keeps blood from reaching the lungs from the right ventricle of the heart. He underwent significant surgery almost immediately after birth, but then learned he would need additional surgery entering his teenage years.
As reported by the Portland Press Herald, the Gerken family opted to have Sam undergo additional open heart surgery between his final two years of high school rather than in the days leading up to his freshman year of college. Sam was on board, but was concerned that depending on how his recovery from the procedure went, he could have to give up running for good.
Not only was that not the case, but Gerken was cleared to resume light jogging within two weeks. He joined a cross country race in September, some three months after the surgery. By the time indoor track season came around, Gerken was ready to compete again.
In fact, one of Gerken’s coaches thinks he might be even better now, after surgery.
“The surgery gave him a new outlook and a fresh perspective,” Gerken’s distance coach John Rogers told the Press Herald. “Sam can run without fear and totally uninhibited. He’s training on the expectations he can run 2 minutes or under, and his workouts are structured that way.”
Now, Gerken is making the most of every single one of those workouts, and that might just be paying dividends on race days.
“The doctors have given me this incredible opportunity,” he said. “I have more power and I feel more driven. It’s almost like my heart isn’t working.”