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Hearts of champions: Habersham athletes prepare for 2019 World Heart Games in North Carolina
Dr. Stuart Sanders (in black) and World Heart Games participants pose for a picture during the 2016 World Heart Games in Charlotte, N.C. - photo by For The Times

The Olympic flame symbolizes a burning desire for many athletes to embody greatness. Very few reach the international stage, leaving many to long for a similar feat.

The World Heart Games exists to welcome these opportunities to people with past heart episodes (heart attacks, stent implants, etc) in a two-day setting. 

This weekend, many cardiac patients will become torchbearers at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina.

Habersham Medical Center is one of many cardiac rehabilitation centers across the country that forms teams to compete in the every three-year event.

Dr. Stuart Sanders started the cardiac program at Habersham Medical Center in 1986 and began recruiting patients for the initial International Heart and Lung Games (the precursor to the World Heart Games) in 2003.

“The reason we started these games is because we want to promote physical activity and health,” Sanders said. “We want to promote cardiac rehabilitation, and the good benefits because traditionally cardiac rehab has been under-prescribed for patients.”

Today, the Olympic-inspired sporting event motivates “cardiac athletes” ranging from 40-90 years of age to kickstart the kid inside of them. 

Sanders, currently an Olympic & U.S. Figure Skating Physician, derived inspiration in the beginning from Georgia’s medical community. In 1989, a group of Georgia nurses and physical therapists began the Heart of Gold Games, and Sanders witnessed how the motivation positively affected the patients’ quality of life.

“It was so much fun for the patients,” Sanders said. “It gave them something to train and look forward to. It was safe sports, so I thought I need to take this to a national and international level.”

Members of Georgia’s medical community identified a hole within the cardiac rehab process, so Sanders, the medical director for the state cardiac rehab organization  at the time, expanded the initiative further to those who needed it most.

“A lot of these people go through periods after they have heart attacks that they face their own mortality,” he said. “Some of them get pretty depressed: They think they’re not going to enjoy life, let alone sports again.”

Where their heart had failed them in the past, patients now have the opportunity to fill the void: prove their bodies are sufficient enough to live an ideal, athletic life. 

Twenty-two events are scheduled for this year’s World Heart Games including basketball, disc golf and cornhole. For events like prediction walk and swim, cardiac athletes estimate their final time before undergoing the task. Their actual time will then be compared to their predicted time, and the winner with the smallest variation wins.

“That’s what makes it safe because you’re not racing with the guy next to you to beat him,” Sanders said. “We make sure nobody has watches or looking at their phones and no coaching.”

Before qualifying for the games, each participant’s health is approved by their personal physician, who carefully documents their ability to safely perform controlled exercises away from clinical supervision. 

Adding to the Olympic spectacle, an opening ceremony, torch presentation, and closing ceremony are held, along with the presentation of gold, silver and bronze medals.

For nine years, Sanders’s team, Habersham Sports, have brought home gold in volleyball, and they look to stay undefeated this weekend. But one desire had to be met before embarking on the three hour drive to Hickory — matching team wear. 

“We gave them orange golf shirts that says Habersham Sports on it and gave them a white baseball cap that says the same thing,” Sanders said.

“It’s like being in little league again, all these guys getting excited about their uniform.”

In the end, finding joy in life again is what it’s all about.

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