UPDATED: Nicola Coles and Other Olympic Athletes Fight Atrial Fibrillation

September 3, 2008 6:29 AM CT

The Olympics is a special time, but the dedication and commitment that it takes to prepare for them is truly amazing. For some world-class athletes, atrial fibrillation becomes part of the process.

Several weeks before the Beijing Olympics, New Zealand women’s rowing team member, Nicola Coles, stopped by the Atrial Fibrillation Blog and left the following comment on the post about Does Stress Cause Atrial Fibrillation?


What a relief to be able to find information and read other’s stories about AF.

I’m a 36 yr old professional athlete in the NZ Rowing Team about to compete at my 2nd Olympics in Beijing in under 4 weeks.

Last week I had my first episode of AF after having trained in the morning, a big lunch and then a nap on the couch, I woke up with AF. When after 24 hours it hadn’t gone away I was electrically cardioverted (IV flecainide didn’t work).

Am I stressed at the moment? Um yuhhuh!!!!! I am trying to find methods of dealing with the stress but also trying to find as much info as I can on dealing with AF as I’m not sleeping very well as I’m sure its going to come on again. Not ideal in the lead up to an Olympics but I’m determined this will not affect my performance.

So far this hasn’t affected my training and I’m hopeful that because this comes on in my sleep it won’t come on when I’m racing. (Flecainide creates an irregular wave pattern on my ECG so I can’t use this and beta blockers are banned so I can’t use those either).

Doctors have been less than helpful, looking at me blankly when I say I woke up with it rather than being brought on by exercise.


Wow, competing in the Olympics at age 36. She is the oldest member of the New Zealand team. That’s kind of like U.S. Olympic swimmer, Dara Torres, who at age 41 is now the oldest swimming medalist in Olympic history. As one who is not athletic, I find this pretty staggering.

Here is an AP photo of Nicola and her teammate, Juliette Haigh, winning in the Olympic Women’s pair repechage yesterday.

Hopefully Nicola’s atrial fibrillation has stayed away, and will continue to do so as she goes forward in the Olympics and continues to win.

Besides Nicola, we also know that Rob Waddell, of the New Zealand men’s rowing team, is well known for having atrial fibrillation.

And this was posted recently on one of the atrial fibrillation forums about another Olympic athlete:

“Andy Baddeley, our big hope [Great Britain] for a medal in the 1500 metres track event has some form of paroxysmal “arrhythmia” and has a monitoring chip implanted in his chest wall.”

There are undoubtedly other Olympic athletes as well who have atrial fibrillation or arrhythmias, so regardless of your own national loyalties, please hold good thoughts for the health and safety of these athletes as they compete in Beijing and that their arrhythmias will stay at bay.

Go, Nicola, Rob, and Andy! And stay safe!

UPDATE 9-3-08: I reached out to Nicola to congratulate her on her Olympic success and to let her know we had been pulling for her. I also wanted to find out how she was during the Olympics, and was the afib a problem for her. I was delighted to hear back and here is what she said:

Hi Mellanie,

A couple of days after I posted on the website I got a call from a heart specialist who gave me lots of support and made me feel a lot more confident about going away to compete and dealing with afib at the same time.

However from reading a lot of the other posts I decided I would also take some magnesium and fish oil supplements and that gave me a bit of confidence that at least I was doing something.

What I found was that as soon as I arrived in Beijing and the training load came off, my heart calmed right down and the feeling like it was about to beat right out of my throat stopped and I was able to finally get a good nights sleep. I had no problems with my heart throughout the whole Olympic regatta, thank goodness 🙂

We ended up 5th in the world, slightly disappointing in some ways, but I also realise how much we did actually achieve and to have made it to the final was awesome.

The whole experience of the Olympics was brilliant and I had a great time after the regatta was over, looking around Beijing, watching some other sports and celebrating with my teammates!!

Thanks so much for the article you wrote and also for the photo, I hadn’t seen that one.

I’m retiring from competition now and extremely excited at the thought that life is stretched out in front of me, with no training anymore!!!  I think its fair to say that my body (or heart at least) had got to the end of its tether after 10 years of fulltime training 40 hours a week, and I’m very relieved to have a bit of a rest now.  Although I hope to stay in the sport in some way, hopefully in coaching or talent identification etc.

Kind Regards,
Nicola Coles

I thought you’d want to know about Nicola’s Olympic experience. Being fifth in the whole world is amazing. Can you imagine training full time for 10 years for this event and the exhilaration from having accomplished it? And how exciting knowing that you get to venture out on the next chapter of your life.

It’s like that with afib. Even if you’ve suffered for years and years, there are so many options today that you can start a whole new chapter of your life. As I post this, I’m just a few days away from the 3-year anniversary of the procedure that gave me my life back, and doing so started me off on a new chapter of life, being here to help and support you. (Here’s my story…)

What would you do with a new chapter of life?