As told by Jody Carrow
It’s an expression we hear and use all the time when seeking or giving advice – trust your heart – because we believe our hearts hold the wisdom and insight we need to make the decisions that align with our hopes and dreams. Our hearts don’t let us down. We can all recall a time when we made a truly heart-led decision, no matter how small, and the positive impact that decision had.
But to Nick Laporte, trusting your heart is also a real daily practice. Nick is a former professional hockey player turned Olympic sprinter hopeful. His eyes are set on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 28-year-old’s first race on this Olympics journey, in fact, his first race ever, happened in March 2019. Yes, you read that right: Nick Laporte comes from hockey, is 28 years old (even I know that’s a late start in sprinting) and his first running race just happened.
What does any of this have to do with Nick trusting his heart? Everything, because Nick would not be on this path if his heart hadn’t gone into arrhythmia during a hockey game in the Czech Republic in 2013 which sent him to hospital, resulting in multiple defibrillations and the end of his hockey season. Shortly after, his team went bankrupt. He returned to Canada for more medical treatment and to wait for a new team placement. While he was home, his friend Mariano Ezeta (who happened to be a rising track star) convinced him to come and train with him at the University of Calgary. Mariano was battling leukemia at the time and needed the extra training push in between treatments he knew Nick would give him, and Nick needed to stay in top shape so he could return to hockey at short notice.
“Before long,” Nick explained, “Mariano and I became some of the fastest guys at school.”
“We started joking about maybe making the Olympics…and then somewhere along the way, the joke turned into our mission.”
Mariano died in 2017. He was 23 years old. Nick lost his good friend and training partner, but he did not lose sight of their shared goal. He is still going for the Olympics and he’s doing it for both of them. He now has Ben Johnson – former Olympian and World Champion sprinter – at his side as his mentor, coach, and friend. Their regimen is relentless and gruelling, but Nick is no stranger to hard work and is willing to do what he knows it will take to make this dream happen.
Nick recalls the last time he heard from Mariano: “He sent me a text message from the hospital that said, ‘I better see you at the next Olympics’. A few days later, he was gone. I think about that text every single time I step on the track. He’s a big reason why I want to make it as bad as I do.”
But there are days when Nick is forced to take a break because of anxiety about his heart. Though given a clean bill of heart health, the PTSD will suddenly seize Nick and anxiety ramps up. “It’s still affecting me during some of my more intense workouts and I have to coach myself through it,” he said.
When asked what he does to get through the fear that his heart might explode, Nick’s honest response was so welcome. “Nothing really works when I’m right in the middle of it.”
“I just have to keep saying to myself, Hey, you’ve been here before, your heart’s doing exactly what it needs to do…take a minute and let it pass.”
“Sometimes the self-talk works, but then there are times when I have to stop the workout because I’m worrying too much that something’s not right. Some days are better than others, for sure.”
We talk a bit about how tricky anxiety is because of the way it can make you doubt yourself and your perceptions, and how hard it is for a person suffering from anxiety to differentiate between healthy instinctive hesitation about something and full-on fear. Nick emphasizes the importance of talking about our mental health in real ways with people we trust. “When I finally started talking about what happened with my heart and how that was impacting me now, it was then that I could connect what was happening to me to PTSD. But it took me a long time to start talking…mental health issues are a huge, huge thing in sports but hardly anybody talks about it.”
Nick credits his family and friends and coach Ben with being the people he can lean on. “I know a lot of people don’t talk about mental health issues – they just kind of block them out – but having people to talk to is the best way to get through it.” Nick has really walked his talk in the past year as he experienced two major setbacks that sidelined him for 2018’s racing season which was supposed to be his premiere. He developed a stress fracture and when recovered from that, developed an infection that landed him back in hospital and took 14 hard-earned pounds of muscle off his body. He just resumed training in January of this year.
“It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. It’s been really hard. 2020 seemed so far away and that I had all the time in the world, and then I lost a full season. It’s mentally exhausting. You start to question whether you have enough time, whether or not you’re cut for this, if you’re on the right path…but I have a good support group of friends and the right coach to talk me out of all those thoughts and assure me I’m going to come out bigger, better, faster and stronger – that’s huge.”
When I first reached out to Nick to set up an interview, he responded, “That should work. I might be up on a roof, but I can still talk! Not a problem.” To help with the costs of training, Nick is shovelling snow off roofs. Oh, and designing and locally manufacturing an athletic clothing line called NIKFIT. This on top of training 6 hours a day as well as running elite athlete and kids training camps with Ben. And making time to help others. This past weekend he and Ben were part of a fundraiser for a little girl with cystic fibrosis. All proceeds went to support her needs.
“I pride myself in my work ethic. I would never say I’m the most skilled athlete in the world, but as far as work ethic, it’s very hard to find someone who’s going to work harder than myself.”
I asked Nick what words he might have for anyone struggling with anxiety. He said, “Having anxiety doesn’t make you weak, or any less of a human being. Many people struggle with anxiety, whether it’s during certain situations, or around the clock. The biggest thing is to determine the underlying causes of your anxiety. From there, you need to find ways to distract your mind from worrying or over thinking. The human brain is incredibly powerful and with the right steps, you can overcome just about anything. As stupid as it sounds, when my anxiety shows up on the track, I chew gum. It helps me worry less about my beating heart and keeps me focused on training. Not everyone can benefit from the standard methods of deep breathing and self talk. Find out how to distract the mind and watch your anxiety diminish. You also need to remind yourself that anxiety hasn’t killed you yet, so each time it shows up and you overcome it, put that into your memory bank for next time.”
Thanks, Nick, for sharing your story with us at Unsinkable. We wish you all the best this season and hope to cheer you on at the Olympics in 2020!