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Cailin Cermak, 8, and her mother, Chantel Cermak, speed skate on the 1,000-meter oval on Lake Bemidji. Chantel, an Olympic speed skater, is recovering from surgery to repair familial ascending aortic aneurysm and raising awareness of the condition. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Speed skating: Olympian Cermak raises awareness about ascending aortic aneurysm condition

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Chantel Cermak's ascending aortic aneurysm probably started growing when she was in her 20s and a member of the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Team.

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Cermak skated the 3,000-meter, 1,500-meter and 1,000-meter races for the United States during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. She just missed making the team by one spot in 1992 and in 1998.

Cermak, organizer with her husband, David, of the National Long Track Speed Skating Marathons Saturday and Sunday on the 1,000-meter Lake Bemidji oval, is recovering from an August surgery in to cut out the aneurysm and replace the section of artery with a Dacron tube to mend the genetic defect. Three previous generations of her family members died young, most likely of the same condition. She used to sail around the oval 15 times in the speed skater's position, but now can only make it halfway.

"My goal is to go one whole lap in a speed skater's position," Cermak said.

An aortic aneurysm is an abnormal bulge in the wall of the aorta, the body's largest arterial trunk, which carries blood from the heart by branch arteries through the body. The aneurysm is caused by disease in the aortic wall.

Not heart attack

Until recently, Cermak said, ascending aortic aneurysms were often misdiagnosed as heart attacks and, consequently, mistreated.

"That mistake is made a lot of times to horrible results," said Amy Yasbeck, widow of actor John Ritter, who died Sept. 11, 2003, at age 54, after his aortic aneurysm was misdiagnosed. Yasbeck is director of the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health.

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Yasbeck said John's children and brother have all been scanned for the condition and the genetic markers that have been identified for Familial Aortic Aneurysm and Dissection, which are estimated as causing 20 percent of the cases. By comparison, she noted that the familial genes for breast cancer result in 5 percent of the cases.

"You can predict genetically, which is the first line of defense," Yasbeck said. "The aorta is not part of the heart - it's vascular."

Because the condition carries few or no symptoms, and the victims show normal EKGs and blood pressure, ascending aortic aneurysms are often only discovered by chance during scans for other problems.

Fortunate illness

Cermak was an otherwise fit and athletic 42-year-old who went for her usual run on Aug. 15, 2007, and felt fine. But she woke up in the night with chest pains. A CAT scan at the North Country Regional Hospital Emergency Department showed she had pneumonia. That was cured with a course of antibiotics, but on her return checkup, Dr. Michel Schwindt notice on the scan that her aorta was dilated.

"Had I not got that (unrelated) scan, I would never have known," she said.

The recommendation was to watch and wait - if the aneurysm didn't grow, surgery wouldn't be necessary. But by last August, almost two years to the day she was diagnosed, the decision by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic where Cermak, now 44, was treated decided the risk of leaving the aneurysm alone was greater than the risk of the operation.

"You'll die if you rupture," she said.

She said research shows that 43,000-47,000 people die of ruptured aortas each year, more than those who die of breast cancer or car accidents. And, 20 percent of the cases are caused by a genetic defect. Cermak said her children, Logan, 14, Nolan, 10, and Cailin, 8, will be tested to see if they inherited the defect that probably killed her father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

On a crusade

"Now, it's a passion of mine," Cermak said of making people aware of the danger of the condition. "All the people in Bemidji walking around who don't even know this should be something they should be concerned about."

Her goal, she said, is to work for as much awareness about aortic aneurysm dangers as there is about breast cancer. People need to know their family health issues history and insist on being checked if they have concerns.

Olympic career

Chantel (Bailey) Cermak entertained Olympic dreams as a young girl growing up in Champaign, Ill. Cermak started in figure skating when she was 10. The 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill was her hero. Cermak even adopted the then-famous Dorothy Hamill hairstyle when she was 14.

Cermak gave up competitive figure skating when she was 18 and started speed skating when she was 22.

"I got the bug and thought, 'Maybe I could make the Olympic team with this,'" she said. "I always like it when people think I'm nuts and I can prove them wrong."

Cermak is also a volunteer in studies of familial aortic aneurysm at the University of Texas.

Cermak was working for the U.S. Figure Skating Association and coached speed skating in Wisconsin and Illinois. In 2004, her husband, a Becida native, wanted to relocate back his home area.

"He said, 'If I promise you I'd get you a speed skating oval and a club, will you move to Bemidji?'" Cermak recalled.

In 2005, she formed Pioneer Speed Skating, and in 2008 hosted the first National Long Track Speed Skating Marathons on Lake Bemidji. She said she sees young members of the club who have Olympic potential, but need more opportunities for competition. Their daughter, Cailin, has included Olympic speed skating in her life to-do list.

Marathon weekend

The National Long Track Marathons will be Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 20-21 on the 1,000-meter oval. There will be a warming tent at the oval during the races, and a parking lot has been cleared, so spectators are welcome to watch from their cars.

Community members are welcome to join the long races or the citizens' race with starts assigned to various age categories at 2 p.m. Saturday. The entry fee is $5 and is open to all ages with mass started by age groups. She said people can use any kind of skates they have for the races.

She emphasized that the track isn't just for the marathoners. It's open to anyone in the community.

Cermak said she will be in the lobby of the Hampton Inn & Suites 4:30-8 p.m. today, Feb. 19, signing up skaters.

There will be an awards banquet catered by the Green Mill beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, in the Hampton. The cost is $18.50.

Cermak said the club is seeking volunteers to help with flooding the oval, as well as lap counters. To sign up, call her at 444-3884. For more information or to register, go to bemidjispeedskating.org.

For more information on familial aortic aneurysm research and recommendations, go to johnritterfoundation.org.

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