Christensen skates with heart
The toe loop. The salchow. The lutz. The axel.
All are common figure skating jumps. Maybe Wilton skater Karen Christensen has done them all. Just listening to her story is enough to say that a triple salchow is easy for her.
Ms. Christensen is an honoree for the Fairfield County Heart Walk, taking place later this month, to help raise awareness and money for the American Heart Association.
“When I was 6 years old, I was diagnosed with an atrial septal defect in my heart, and I had open heart surgery at Yale,” she said. “After the surgery, the doctor said I needed to get into some sport to get built back up.
“I tried gymnastics and ballet and I didn’t really like it. I found my passion with ice skating.”
Every year after her surgery until she was 21, Ms. Christensen would go back to Yale for checkups. Each visit would produce a clean bill of health. She eventually realized her goal of skating in the Ice Capades for one year. Years went by and all was well until after she gave birth to her son, Tyler, now a senior at Wilton High School.
“My heart rate would go way up and I had shortness of breath,” she said. “I thought I was done with heart disease. I paid my dues.”
Subsequent trips to her doctor didn’t reveal anything at first, until she was hooked up to an EKG machine.
“He said, ‘You’re in atrial fibrillation. You have atrial flutter, you have tachycardia.’”
She tried medication at first, but that eventually “broke through.” Cardioversion followed, in 1997, which was meant to shock her heart back into rhythm. It didn’t work.
In fact, she has had the procedure 22 times.
In 2002, she went to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York for a cardiac ablation procedure. In this procedure a thin tube is threaded through a vein into the heart. The procedure works by scarring or destroying tissue that triggers an abnormal heart rhythm.
“Everyone thought it was going to work,” she said. “I’m a very positive person. Never did it go through my mind that it wasn’t going to work.
“They were starting to check things out when they said, ‘We’re done. We can’t do anything for you. Everything’s a lot more complicated than we thought.’”
Still in atrial fibrillation, she hopes the American Heart Association can find a breakthrough for a procedure that will stabilize her.
Ms. Christensen has hardly let that stop her from remaining active. Her message to people is to not slow down.
“Even though you have it, like I do, and I deal with it every day, you can still live your life,” she said. “I try not to think about. I feel it, and I hang back, but it doesn’t stop me from doing what I have to do. Because of all of the advancements and groundbreaking research of the American Heart Association, I have lived a full life.”
“The thing that kept me sane was that I started skating for myself again.”
She auditioned for the Ice Capades when she was young, and was accepted for the 1982-83 season. There were three different companies at that time, and she skated with the West group. Among her six roles was the Tailor Smurf, although there was also a 50s theme among the costume changes.
“This was the precision number,” she said, flipping through a few pictures. “We had to come down a slide. Every night I used to be a wreck!”
She also got the chance to work with popular skaters Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, and Olympic Gold medalist Dorothy Hamill.
She said she loved the experience, with the exception of being weighed every week. Being over the defined weight brought a fine, with five fines meaning termination.
“That was a little tricky,” she said.
She returned from the Ice Capades to begin working as an ice skating teacher. While she moved among rinks for several years, she now teaches at Stamford Twin Rinks, where she has been for four years.
“I do privates and groups, and a little bit of hockey power skating,” she said.
Her favorite ice move is the flying camel, a move once known as the Button camel, named for Olympic champion Dick Button.
Her home life includes her son and her husband, Jeff, who commutes to Arlington, Va., for work on a weekly basis. She stays active by teaching, as well as doing fund raising at St. Jerome’s Church in Norwalk.
Now she’s doing more with the American Heart Association.
“So I keep myself out of trouble,” she said.
“We need to increase awareness on heart disease. It’s the No. 1 problem for women. Also, we need to raise funds for medical research. Every time I go to my doctor, I’m always presenting him with new research for something I want to have done. Normally the answer’s no.”
The Fairfield County Heart Walk will be held on Saturday, Oct. 19, at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport. Registration begins at 8:30 and the walk steps off at 10. It’s a three-mile walk, and the event will take place rain or shine. For more information, visit fairfieldcountyheartwalk.org.
Ms. Christensen will be there to be honored, and will walk with her team, “All Heart.” It’s another step in a life that has been quite a story already.
“I’m here to haunt everybody,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”