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Kevin Kessler Finds Acceptance and Redemption After “Sudden Cardiac Death”

July 4, 2021 by
Photo Credit: B.Knox Photography (facebook.com/bknoxphotog)
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August 10, 2019, is when Kevin Kessler says his “life truly changed.” It was the day the 43-year-old athlete collapsed during a CrossFit competition due to an abnormal — and deadly — heart rhythm. 

His story: Kessler was competing in an event called Fittest of the Upstate, a competition in South Carolina he calls the “next step” for athletes who love contests but will never make the Games. It was invite-only, and each participant qualified with their scores from the Open.

  • The morning of the competition, Kessler says he woke up feeling good. Then, he started the first workout, an AMRAP of rowing, burpee-box-jump-overs, kettlebell snatches, and a sandbag carry.
  • “The very first round I went through and I was like, ‘Oh, I really don’t feel well.’ The second time I got back to the row, I actually stopped in the middle of it. Even my judge was like, ‘What are you doing, you can’t stop!’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m so tired and this is awful,’” he says.

The second workout went better, Kessler “bounced back” with a top-10 finish. It was when he went to cheer on another competitor after finishing event three that things went wrong:

  • “I took a knee in front of him, cheered him on, and helped him finish,” Kessler explains. “As soon as he finished, I stood up, and the whole room spun. 
  • “The next thing I remember, I was in the back of an ambulance.”

A handful of medical professionals, all at the competition, came to his aid and immediately checked for a pulse. There wasn’t one.

  • After a few rounds of CPR, someone in the gym found an AED. “One shock is all I got, but that brought my heart back into a normal rhythm,” Kessler says. 
  • Long story short, I went into a really funky rhythm called Torsades de Pointes,” Kessler continues. “It’s a very deadly rhythm. I’ve been told by several doctors and first responders that they’ve seen it before, it’s really scary, and that no one lives through it.” 

Six days later, Kessler was released from the hospital, diagnosed with “sudden cardiac death.” An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), designed to stop abnormal rhythms with an electric shock, was placed in his chest. Doctors told him CrossFit was off the table. 

  • “They said if I wanted to stay active, I could do power walking,” Kessler says. 
  • I remember that night, laying in the hospital, I was really angry, confused. Like why did this happen to me, I’m a pretty fit guy, 43 years old,” Kessler continues.
  • In the hospital, he made one goal: next year, he’d qualify again for Fittest of the Upstate.

Back at the gym: Two weeks later, Kessler was back in his gym, CrossFit Greenwood, working with a cardiologist to keep his heart rate in check. 

  • He was able to do the Open in October — two months after his accident — but says his “mindset was all jacked up.” 
  • “I didn’t know it then, but I know now I think I went through all the stages of grief,” he says. “I was really angry when it happened. I was almost in denial, [thinking] I’m going to be better, I’m going to show everybody, I’m going to prove to myself that this is not me, it’s just a flukey thing, it’s never going to happen again,” Kessler adds.
  • “At home,” he says, “I was just telling my wife we’re not going to talk about this, we’re not going to tell anyone. I was like, we’re not going to make a big deal out of tests or visits, because I was in denial.”

Kessler ended up qualifying for Fittest of the Upstate in 2020, but it was canceled due to COVID. 

During COVID, “still in a denial mindset,” Kessler started an online engine builder program. 

  • “One day, [the programming] was a 60 minute, max distance run. I went out on that, and I don’t know, about 45 minutes in, my legs started cramping a bit, my quads started cramping. That’s a pretty tell-tale sign of dehydration, which is a pretty big cause of heart arrhythmia,” Kessler explains.
  • I should have stopped, and I know that now, but I just rubbed my quads out and kept going.”

At the end of his run, Kessler was shocked. “It felt like a horse kicked me from the inside,” he explains. A nurse confirmed it: he had suffered the same, potentially deadly rhythm. The device saved him. 

  • “Had I not had that event, with all those people in the community, at the Fittest of the Upstate, [the rhythm] would have happened that day, and no one would have been around, and I would have died because I was by myself,” he says. 

But, Kessler says he was still able to explain the shock away. “I knew better than to be running like that. As soon as I cramped, I should have stopped. This was my fault. I can still control this. So I kept training, and I was still kind of in denial, and I was still going to fight through this with brute force.”

A journey to acceptance: Three months later and in the middle of the night, Kessler was shocked. It was that same, abnormal rhythm. 

  • That one really was the big, eye-opening event that kind of helped me accept it,” he says.
  • “I really felt like that was God telling me ‘You’ve got this, and you can live with it, and you can do everything that you’ve been doing, you just have to do it in a different way with a different mindset and a different purpose,” he says. 

So, he kept training, but with a new mindset. Kessler says he began to give himself more grace, knowing that if he wasn’t feeling 100%, he didn’t have to push. He could simply have fun and be around good people. 

  • “When the original event happened, everyone was there… and a lot of people reached out to me and I was constantly hearing ‘God has plans for you, you’re going to do great things,’” Kessler says. 
  • “And I got tired of it. I’m just a guy. There are no plans for me. I’m just a guy and I don’t want to… screw up God’s plans. What if I miss his plan or something? Or if I don’t do great things?”
  • This mindset is what made him stay silent about his cardiac arrest. Now, he says, he knows his story could help someone else, even if it’s as simple as encouraging a gym to get an AED. 

Redemption: In 2021, Kessler qualified for the Fittest of the Upstate a third time, and placed third in his division.   

  • “I got there, I didn’t have any hopes, there was no pressure, I was as calm as I have ever been,” Kessler says, speaking to the competition days. “I was there, so I had already won. Participating in it was the victory.”
  • “I don’t want to say it’s the ending point, because it’s a journey, but it was definitely some closure to move on,” he adds. 
  • “It was just super, super powerful moment. I tell people it was the bow on the redemption story,” he continues. 
  • “It would have been easy to be fearful and decide not to train anymore, but that’s not who I am, and I just think I would have been miserable taking that route,” Kessler adds. “I would certainly take this condition away if I could, but I wouldn’t go in and undo any of the process and the journey in between.”

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