Mark Spitz won nine Olympic gold medals for swimming, including seven in 1972, when he also set a new world record in each event. That record of seven golds in one Olympics went unbroken for 36 years.

In the years since — Spitz turns 70 this month — he’s stayed active and healthy. He swims three times a week at the UCLA pool near his home in Los Angeles, and he walks for 30 to 40 minutes every day.

So he was shocked to discover he had atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, strokes and heart failure.

Lightheadedness that wouldn’t stop

Spitz’s condition cropped up about a year and a half ago, when his wife asked him to go into the garage one morning to get some berries out of the fridge. He did, but he felt lightheaded.

Simon Hofmann/Getty Images For Laureus

“It didn’t go away. It seemed to get worse,” Spitz says. He lay down, feeling as though he might lose consciousness. His wife called 911 and when the paramedics arrived they found he had an extremely fast heart rate — over 170 beats per minute.

They rushed him to the UCLA Medical Center emergency department, where doctors administered two IV drugs to try to get his heart rate to come down. They even tried to shock his heart back to its normal rhythm, three times.  

“The initial couple of hours from the time I went to get the berries were scary, to say the least,” Spitz says. 

Finally, almost 12 hours after his symptoms started, doctors were able to get his heart rate under control. He joins up to 6.1 million people diagnosed with AFib in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Spitz stayed in the hospital overnight for observation and was sent home with an EKG device to monitor his heart’s activity. Two days later he had another episode of AFib that subsided after about four minutes. 

Aging puts us at risk for AFib, and former athletes like Spitz are at higher risk. One analysis, published by the American College of Cardiology, found older endurance athletes were five times more likely to develop AFib than non-athletes. 

Keeping AFib episodes at bay

Spitz uses medication, monitoring, and lifestyle changes to keep his AFib in check. 

Monitoring is important, because it’s possible to have an episode of AFib without noticing symptoms.

It took some trial and error before he and his doctors landed on the right mix of medications to control his symptoms without causing side effects like dizziness.

Monitoring is important, because it’s possible to have an episode of AFib without noticing symptoms. Spitz uses a device called KardiaMobile to track his heart rhythm. It’s a personal EKG monitor that can feed information to his cell phone and email his EKG to his doctor. Spitz says his cardiologist, who also has AFib, uses one as well. 

“With it, I have the knowledge of what’s happening in my body, and [I have] the doctor at the other end if I have an issue. That confidence of knowing where I’m at is paramount for me,” he says. “AFib doesn’t limit the way you would like to live your life, provided you monitor the situation.”

Spitz can still keep swimming and walking with AFib. “It’s not inhibiting me. I still exercise and do everything I want to do,” he says.

Mark Spitz wins the third of his seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Giorgio Lotti/Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images

He was already eating a healthy diet before his diagnosis — low-carb, with fish two or three times a week. His biggest dietary change since his diagnosis was to cut out “stupid foods.” He says, “I never met a dessert I didn’t like, but I limit them to once or twice a week and I’ll just have two or three bites. I’ve moderated the not-so-good foods.” He says he feels healthier without that sugar in his body.

From August 2018 until January 2019, his heart rate stayed within normal ranges. But on New Year’s Day 2019 he had another AFib episode, one he believes was provoked by an incident that happened the day before that left him irritated and anxiety-ridden. “I’ve learned not to let things be so important,” he says. “Now I take things that affect my life in a different fashion.”

He’s since gone more than a year without experiencing another AFib episode. 

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