Inspired by ‘ZacStrong,’ Shawnee cross country eyes state championships

Cross country holds a special place in Zac Spitzer’s heart. The sport likely saved his life.

Spitzer, a sophomore at Shawnee High School, is currently in Boston recovering from a second open-heart surgery in 11 months. He’s separated from his teammates by more than 700 miles. But he’s never far from their thoughts.

On Saturday, the Shawnee Braves compete in the high school cross country state championships held at National Trail Raceway in Hebron, just east of Columbus. Just as his teammates did at the regional meet on Oct. 27, the Braves will have ZacStrong and Run For Zac written on their legs.

That message helped carry the Braves’ boys to the Division II regional championship in Troy. The girls team finished fourth, earning the final qualifying spot in an effort inspired by Spitzer.

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Shawnee junior Olivia Warax was feeling so bad prior to the regional meet that coach Brian DeSantis offered her the option to not run. For Warax there was no option but to compete.

“It doesn’t matter (how bad I felt),” Warax said. “We wanted to dedicate our postseason to Zac. He can’t be out with us running with us. Any day we have, his day is worse. No matter how bad I feel I’m still out running for him and our team is running for him.”

Spitzer met Shawnee coach Brian DeSantis in 2017 after Spitzer won the Braves 5K for Healthy Kids, beating 344 entrants. DeSantis encouraged Spitzer to come out for cross country as a freshman. Spitzer did and made varsity.

That’s when the problems started emerging. As he finished the final 200 yards or immediately after races, his lips turned white. His faced looked almost green. He would slowly melt to the ground. Spizer often had no memory of crossing the finish line. His parents, Darrin and Deb Spitzer, took him to the emergency room after one race.

Spitzer was treated for dehydration. Blood work was done. One doctor suggested Spitzer’s symptoms were psychological. His problems persisted.

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The situation reached its most critical point at the 2017 state meet.

“It was horrible,” Deb said. “He was pushing as hard as he could. It was horrible the way he looked. He almost melted out there and crawled across the finish line.”

His mom showed the video to their pediatrician the day after the meet. Two days later Spitzer was having a heart assessment. Spitzer, it turned out, was born with a coronary artery anomaly (CAA), a congenital heart defect.

His coronary artery was coming off his aorta in the wrong location. Under maximum exertion his coronary artery was getting squeezed and part of his heart was denied oxygen. CAA is the second leading cause of sudden cardiac death (behind hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) in young athletes.

“The cardiologist said, ‘Zac, often the first sign is death. We usually find this in autopsy.’”

Spitzer played both basketball and baseball, but it’s likely the condition would have gone undiagnosed until it was too late. Running that 5K in the eighth grade for fun, setting his path into cross country, perhaps saved his life.

“I think in the running world we expect runners – it’s just a brutal sport – and I think there are different standards in the running world than in other sports,” Deb said. “If Zac would have collapsed in a football game or a basketball game, he would have been treated immediately. But in the running world it isn’t that uncommon to collapse.”

On Dec. 19, 2017, Spitzer had open heart surgery to re-implant the coronary artery. Spitzer returned to playing baseball in the spring and basketball in the summer, but still felt tired and out of shape. This past September at his nine-month post-operation check-up it was discovered his valve did not heal properly and was failing.

The Spitzers reached out for second opinions, including from Dr. Chris Baird, director of the Congenital Heart Valve Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. The family traveled to Boston and on Oct. 28, Zac underwent his second open-heart surgery.

Not knowing how bad Spitzer’s valve was until surgery, the family was given four options. Option A was repairing his native valve. B was replacing the valve with his own pericardial tissue. C was a mechanical valve, which would mean no more sports. And D.

“D was not pleasant,” Deb said. “Even B and C weren’t great. They would have been valves that would have lasted about 10 years. We got A. We weren’t expecting it and it’s great. We couldn’t have had a better outcome.”

While baseball is in play for the spring and basketball is likely, the Spitzer’s haven’t asked about cross country yet. They’re taking it slow. But even if Spitzer does not run next season the Braves still want him part of the team.

“Everybody loves Zac. He fits the model of what we’re looking for in an athlete,” DeSantis said. “Tough, hard working, positive. He’s a great team player. He told me he couldn’t run for us this year but we wanted him at any capacity, even if it was just out there with a smile. With what he’s going through he’s the one walking around complimenting other kids. When he needs lifted up the most, he’s the one doing that to our kids. That’s what he means to our kids.”

The Spitzers are scheduled to return home from Boston on Monday. Zac hopes to return to school the week of Thanksgiving, appropriately enough.

“Zac, the whole time his attitude was ‘I’m going to be okay. I did this once and I can do it again,’” Deb said. “Every night he was kissing me on the cheek telling me it’s going to be okay. He just has a great attitude. … It’s going to be a great Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Saturday at state the Shawnee Braves will write messages to Zac on their legs.

Zac also has a message for the Braves via text: “Tell my team to run like it’s their last race! You never know when you might not be able to run again.”

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