Former Australian national champion speaks of career post-heart condition
Will Walker's cycling career contained many highs before he was forced to permanently retire from the sport earlier this year due to a heart condition. The Australian who burst onto the cycling scene with a silver medal at the 2005 U23 world championships in Madrid had previously retired from the sport due to the same condition in 2009.
After his heart rate hit 270 beats per minute at the Australian nationals in January, Walker knew it was time to hang up his wheels.
Having undergone heart surgery in February, Walker has been readjusting to retirement but that doesn't mean the 28-year-old is taking it easy. Working three days a week in a cardiac research centre, finishing a finance degree and raising awareness of heart conditions in athletes has replaced his time on the bike.
Cyclingnews spoke to Walker about life off the bike and started by asking about the incident in January.
"I was only on the bike for two seconds when I had it so I pulled over to the side of the road," Walker explained. "It's not particularly a beautiful feeling. It's hard to explain, but initially it feels like you're going to VO2 max —but of course you're not — then after that, it feels like your heart is not having the cardiac output you want.
"You're completely out of breath and your blood just isn't getting to your limbs as it normally would. It starts to get pretty scary after only about 30 seconds and staying there [on the roadside] for an hour, wasn't particularly nice."
Walker made a comeback to the sport in 2012 signing with the Australian Drapac squad and experienced a "light episode of tachycardia" at the Tour of the South Coast.
Walker knows how lucky he was to be racing on home roads with spectators that knew who he was and his medical conditions.
"The cardiologist agreed that if it happened in a different country, I wouldn't have made it through, particularly with the racing in Asia I was meant to be doing. Since I've had the defibrillator put in, I would have already died twice without, so it's saved my life."
Having been able to undertake "light exercise" after the incident, it has now been months since Walker has exercised as he explained that post-surgery he was unable "to walk without being completely out rhythm.
"I've had to adjust, I had the operation in February, but I've spent a significant amount of time back in hospital since then, changing the medicine and once you're on the medicine you have to readjust to how healthy you feel and how much energy you have.
"In the following months since the operation, I think the heart must go through a period where it becomes worse, a temporary thing of one or two months when you have more arrhythmia than you normally have, and that has been a little bit difficult to get used to.
Walker is philosophical about his condition and while many people may fall into a depressive cycle, he is simply happy to be alive and taking on new challenges.
"It's just another difficult challenge that I have to encounter and come out the other side stronger if possible.
Life off the bike
When Walker retired for the first time, he remained within the sport taking up coaching, mentoring and development roles with the Malaysian national team and Orica-GreenEdge. When discussing his future, Walker's long-term plans are at the mercy of his health and heart, although for now he is "happy to leave the cycling world to be honest."
"It's difficult to say as we've got to look at what the future may hold for me. Because of my health, it's not so wise for me to travel all over the world and put extra stress on my body."
In 2007 Spanish football was shocked by the death of 22-year-old Antonio Puerta from a cardiac arrest while playing for Sevilla and after the death of Espanyol's captain, Dani Jarque in 2009, La Liga clubs moved to install external defibrillators in health and fitness centres across Spain.
For Walker, increasing testing across sporting codes and identifying issues before they become serious is his new cause.
"At the moment I'm trying to help develop mandatory cardiac testing for athletes in Australia for use in all sporting codes. It's just raising awareness for cardiac issues and helping future athletes avoid similar problems to what I had. Hopefully, also raising some money to invest more funds in cardiac research.
"It's just risk mitigation for the teams and the main aim is to promote these cardiac issues, in particular to all the sporting groups, and get athletes tested once a year.
Reflecting on the 2007 Giro
During his three-year stint with Rabobank from 2006-08, Walker was selected for and finished the 2007 Giro which included an ascent of Monte Zoncolan which the Giro tackles again this year from Ovaro.
Cyclingnews asked Walker what his memories of climbing the 1,750m mountain.
"Monte Zoncolan in that Giro was coming right at the end as well. [On that stage] it was after only a cat two or three climb so it was a particularly easy day. I'm not sure about the Zoncolan stage but I don't think it's as hard as other mountain stages.
"I'd probably say that the climb for the majority isn't too difficult as all the riders will put on a compact ring and have pretty good gear ratios so you'll ride up it at the same power you normally would any way. Then you have the fans to help you anyway. For the guys at the back of the race, which is where I experienced climbing in the third week, it's not so difficult."
It is the demanding Stage 16 which includes the Gavia and Stelvio on the way to finishing atop Val Martelllo Martelltal which Walker is happy to experience from teh comfort of his home.
"The hardest stage, and one they'll all be dreading, is going up the Gavia straight from of the gun. That will be absolutely horrible. I don't think there's been one moment at this year's Giro that I wished I was out there."
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