Russell Anderson

Monday, 18th April, 2005


RICHARD MOORE FOR Russell Anderson, the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester were only the beginning. He was 18, one of Britain’s most exciting young cycling prospects and apparently set on fulfilling a talent which, it seemed then, could take him anywhere, to glory on the track – aged 18, he won a silver medal in a World Cup meeting in Mexico – or to success on the road. The choice appeared to be his. But Anderson disappeared. First he left the lottery-funded British team, where he was being groomed to follow in the wheels of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Rob Hayles, et al. And then, a year ago, he vanished from the sport altogether. And he stayed away until Easter, when he appeared as a roadside spectator during the Girvan 3-Day. That might have been interpreted as a sign that he is about to return; but first it is necessary to ask, where has he been? “A year ago I was doing a club race,” says Anderson, “and I felt that I was going to be sick. I was riding steady, not hard, but I felt dizzy and confused; I thought my legs were about to explode. You don’t really think about why these things are happening when they’re happening – I wondered if it was too much caffeine or something.” Anderson wore a heart rate monitor but he was surprised, rather than alarmed, to see the reading drop while he experienced those sensations. When it happened again, Graeme Herd, Scotland’s national coach, arranged for a consultation at the Sports Medicine Centre at Hampden. While he waited for the results Anderson continued racing but on one occasion came close to collapse. “Sometimes it hit me, sometimes it didn’t,” he says. “It seemed to be related to how pumped up I was for the event.” Then, in June, came the news – Anderson’s heart was “short circuiting.” It was accelerating to 270 beats per minute – his maximum should have been around 200. “My heart rate monitor couldn’t pick it up,” he says. “I would be looking at it and the reading would be going down. But it couldn’t register my heart rate because it was so high. It was going haywire.” The diagnosis was worse than he could have imagined. “I was told that if I kept on racing I’d end up in a box, six feet under,” recalls Anderson, laughing at the black humour. “So last June I just had to stop. It was so frustrating because I’d worked so hard in the winter.” He was put on beta blockers. “They slow the heart rate down, stop the body producing adrenaline and suppress endurance, so I felt awful,” says Anderson. “They thought it was ventricular tachycardia which has caused some athletes to retire for good.” The condition is also thought to have caused deaths in some young endurance athletes. In the early nineties some 18 young cyclists in Holland and Belgium died of sudden heart failure, and while some deaths were attributed to drugs, others may have been because of heart irregularities. Anderson admits that the news terrified him. “I was really worried. I’d been cycling for a long time and this turned my world upside down because my whole life was centred around training and racing.” Yet the process of trying to identify his specific condition was long and frustrating. He was told the case was more complex than it first appeared. And so Anderson, resigned to his cycling career being on hold, at best, began a degree in accountancy and business law at Stirling University last autumn. He moved to the area from Dumfries and was invited to join the Central Institute of Sport. Suddenly progress was made; through the Institute, and with the assistance of sportscotland, private consultations were arranged. No diagnosis has yet been made, but consultants have at least decided on the procedure required – ablation therapy, which entails a high frequency catheter being inserted into a main artery in the upper thigh. This will lead into the heart, where it will act like a pace maker, regulating the heart rate. The procedure is very similar to that undergone in 1996 by Bobby Julich, the American who suffered from Re-entrant Supraventricular Tachycardia (RSVT). Two years after the operation, Julich finished third in the Tour de France; more recently he won the Paris-Nice ProTour stage race. Anderson will undergo the operation on his heart in the next fortnight. “It’s been very motivating to know that people are backing you,” he says. “For a while the bike was a distant memory, but Alan Campbell at the Central Institute has really pushed for me to get treated. I feel quite privileged.” If all goes well, Anderson, now 21, wants to make a full and complete comeback – and, ambitiously, he is targeting next year’s Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. “I realise it’s going to be hard,” he says. “Your lifestyle changes a lot when you’re not racing. But the time out has made me realise why I do it, and how much I miss it.” ENDS


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