Austrian veteran Bernhard Gruber ended his season early after a nightmare winter with many illnesses. But his nightmares didn’t stop and in March, the 37-year-old had to undergo heart surgery for a condition that threatened his performance as an athlete but also almost his life. In this edition of TUEDAY TALK, Gruber talks candidly about his way to a diagnosis, his return to training and why the Nordic Combined fire is still burning inside of him.
You really had a bad winter health-wise. What exactly was going on with you all the time?
Bernhard Gruber: Yes, this season or generally last winter was not an easy time for me at all. I have only been battling illnesses all the time. This started last autumn with a really persistent virus with a nettle rash on my entire body, continued with influenza A and then I caught another virus, which at first I thought might even be the Corona virus. But I was tested for antibodies later on and didn’t have any, so at least I seem to have dodged that bullet.
But yes, the winter was a complete catastrophe health-wise. This lead to me ending the season prematurely as I just didn’t get healthy again.
The time after this season end was probably quite hard and the Corona-virus lockdown cannot have made things easier for you as well. How did you find strength during that time and who were the most important people supporting you?
Gruber: Definitely my family. My wife Magret and my two sons were really important for me in that part, event though we all got sick in February. Luckily my wife recovered a lot faster than me. (laughs) They really took care of me and made sure I was able to regain some strength.
In March, you received the news that you would have to undergo heart surgery, which shocked a lot of Nordic Combined fans when it became public. What does this diagnosis mean for you and your future as an athlete?
Gruber: I felt some pain in my chest for the first time at the end of August. Sometimes, when I started to put some strain on my body, the chest pain was there but it was not easy to pinpoint as it did not occur all the time. It was quite strange and hard to interpret.
In hindsight, I have to say I tried ignoring it for way too long. We as high performance athletes are used to smaller pains here and there, for example a knee flaring up but then you do physiotherapy and massages, you rest it a bit, you continue to move it in a good way and it comes down again. But with the chest pains it does not work like that.
In the course of the winter, the pains became worse and worse and my endurance performance went down and down. As I already had problems in Lillehammer, we did a spiroergometry after that World Cup, also with a heart echo. Weirdly enough, when I did this test, which involves involves exercising on a treadmill until you have reached your individual maximum, I did not have any chest pains and was able to show my normal level of performance. Even the doctors were convinced that the pains could not be caused by my heart as the symptoms did not point to it.
In March, I talked to a family friend who is a doctor in the hospital in Schwarzach and he gave me the advice to do a CT coronary angiogram, as he was concerned by my symptoms and thought it sounded like calcified deposit blocking the coronary vessels. I did this exam in the morning and I already got the call in the afternoon that they found the reason for my problems. My frontal coronary vessel was 90% closed. They thought this was most likely due to a hereditary metabolic disorder that we have in our family, which means my cholesterol levels are higher than normal.
When I heard this diagnosis, I sat down on the floor any cried. I really did not want this to be true, it felt like being in the wrong life all of a sudden: I am a 37-year-old high performance athlete and I have an almost closed coronary vessel. I could not believe it.
The surgery took place on the very next day already and by coincidence, this was the last day before the Corona lockdown happened. It was a really close call that the doctors were still able to take care of me. It was also a really close call as the doctor who implanted the stent told me that if I had waited 2-4 more weeks, I would probably have had a heart attack. So it was only then that I realised how lucky I had been in this matter.
Now some month have passed since your surgery. Where do you currently stand in the rehabilitation process and is it clear already if you can come back to a normal training intensity at some point?
Gruber: As I said, I had a stent implanted, which is a support for the vessel to keep open. I will soon have a control if this has healed properly and we will have another exercise ECG soon but I am not sure if and when exactly I will be allowed to train with maximum intensity again.
How does your alternative training look like at the moment?
Gruber: We started with easy pedalling on the ergometer which we increased day by day, week by week. I also enjoyed the first jogging steps in my garden, always on the grass not to bump the stent too much. It was amazing to move without any pain.
At the moment, I am doing very well. Two, three months after the surgery, things feel a lot more normal. At the moment I am allowed to have a maximum pulse of 135 and I hope that after my checkups, I can increase it again. But I am also just so glad to be allowed all kinds of exercise again: mountain biking, running, stabilising and ski jumping technique exercises and I just came back from roller skiing.
With almost 38 years, many would consider retiring in your situation. You said you haven’t spent a single second thinking about this. What motivates you and which goals do you have left in Nordic Combined?
Gruber: I am just so attached to Nordic Combined. It is my passion to move, I really need this and - even though this might sound strange now - I like to suffer (laughs). I learned to suffer over the many years of my career and as I feel relatively fit now considering all that has happened, I am optimistic. I know myself and my body and it looks quite well.
If everything truly goes well and I can go back to fully exercising my body in October, I just have the feeling that my career isn’t over yet. The fire is still burning, I really want to try again. I am not short on motivation, I am training every day right now. It also feels almost normal, like an athlete doing basic endurance training.
That being said, it would be great to return to high performance sports but I have to get the 100% green light from the experts that it is okay to do so with my heart. I also don’t want to risk my health of life, that’s sure. It will also be interesting to see if I dare to go to the limit and above it in the end.
For now, I am just very happy that I can move normally and without pain and everything else will fall into place eventually. It was a hard thing that happened to me but everyone has their cross to bear and this is mine now. If I really manage to return to high performance sports with my stent, it would be amazing.