Just What the Doctor Ordered - July 2018 Athlete of the Month

Susan Paulson, 62, Alexandria, Minnesota

Cyclist Susan Paulson enjoyed an active youth, biking on gravel roads and ice skating near her northwest Minnesota farm home and discovering her competitive nature by playing recreational volleyball and basketball and running track in school. She was also active in dance line and as a hockey cheerleader. But gradually it became apparent that something wasn’t quite right.

“In junior high I was a record setter in track, but my performance was off in high school and I wasn’t sure why,” she recalls. “I went in for a physical while in college and the doctor noticed something unusual with my heart but thought I was OK. That was before we had echocardiograms.”

Susan chose medical school for her career path, and her classmates at the University of Minnesota noticed she lacked endurance when they found time to play tennis. She went back to the doctor. “I found out I had congenital heart disease. It was an atrial septal defect- a hole in my heart- that was three centimeters wide with a 70 percent shunt and blood flow going the wrong way. Within six weeks I was in the operating room.”

The procedure was successful, and Susan continued with exercise but little recreational sport activity as she became a family practice physician, married a surgeon and raised two children. In the late ‘80s, after the family moved to Alexandria near her husband’s hometown, Susan got back on a bike to ride with her kids and later joined a cycling club. “That was when railroad beds were being converted to gravel paths. Since then they have been paved, and I have 55 continuous miles of bike paths near my home,” she says.

Then, when she was 51, the Minnesota Senior Games cycling competitions were held in her town and a club member suggested she just go try it. “My first ever competition was at those games in 2008. I was unaware of the level of competition I was getting into, and I did not have a fantasy bike or cycling clothes,” she says with a laugh. “I just went out there and did the best I could, and after that first race I was hooked. The people were just so friendly, and I wanted to see how far I could push myself.”

Since then, Susan has competed in time trials and road races in five National Senior Games since 2009. She offers pragmatic advice to others seeking to start with a sport later in life. “First, you have to listen to your doctor to make sure you don’t have any restrictions, because some people can’t resume with the level of activity I have gotten to. Then, just go for it! There’s absolutely nothing to lose by giving it all you have.”

Susan quickly adds that everyone can benefit from exercise. “I tell people that if you want to live longer and fight heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety, exercise has to be a part of your life. So many things are improved with exercise. It doesn’t have to be competitive, you just have to get moving.”

Senior Games was the perfect prescription for Susan as she reflects on her life. “Back when I had surgery I asked my cardiologist how long I would live,” she remembers. “He said, ‘Oh, 62.’ I was 26 and he was probably joking and just picked a number a long way off. Well, I hit 62 last year and I just figure every day is a gift. I’m so thankful to be healthy!”

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