Family Tragedy Fuels Wrestler's Campaign

Sept. 18, 2003 — -- For former Olympic gold medalist and World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Kurt Angle, being involved in the nation's first angina awareness program is not just a way to give back to the community. It is also his way of grappling with a tragic family legacy and giving a gift of life to his infant daughter.

Angina refers to the pain or discomfort people feel when the blood going to the heart may not have enough oxygen, or the heart receives less blood because the arteries are partially blocked. Angina attacks — which can be triggered by any physical activity and emotional stress — are not the same as cardiac arrests, but can be a sign of underlying, more serious heart disease.

Last year, the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association launched "Get Tough on Angina," a national awareness and education program for angina sufferers and their families, and Angle became a campaign spokesman.

Angle was all too aware of the effects of heart disease: He says 15 of his family members have either died from heart attacks or battled angina or other heart diseases.

"My sister had a heart attack at age 41, my dad had two heart attacks before he was 55, my uncle and all four of grandparents died from heart attacks," said the WWE champion. "For a while growing up, I thought that heart attacks were just a natural way to go, that most everyone died from heart attacks."

A Shift in Priorities

On the surface, Angle, 34, is the picture of perfect health. Wrestling fans are using to seeing his 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound mass of muscle slamming and taking down 300- and 400-pound men around WWE rings. Angle, however, takes nothing for granted.

"Since my family — on both sides — are affected by heart disease, I make sure I get regular [heart] checkups, which is something I never did before [involvement in Get Tough on Angina]," Angle said.

"I've undergone the various tests — heart catheterization, the calcium-buildup tests, and everything has come up negative," he said. "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I take care of myself. Many people in my family were heavy drinkers, heavy smokers."

Angle had been used to overcoming injuries to accomplish athletic goals. He came back from a knee injury in 1992 to win his second NCAA wrestling championship and won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta despite having a broken neck.

But Angle's fight against angina and other heart disease is driven by more than his individual needs. He wants to make sure he is around to care for his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Kira, who was born last December.

"I wanted to get involved in something that helped others and helped my family," Angle said. "When I got involved in Get Tough on Angina, there was a shift in priorities. It became about my making sure I keep myself as healthy as I can so I can take care of my family. … Back in the '50s and '60s, many people did not know how bad smoking and drinking was for them. Today, in America, we're more well-informed."

A Healthy Heart — for Your Children’s Sake

There is no known evidence that angina had any role in last week's death of actor John Ritter, who suffered a dissection of the aorta due to what doctors said was an undetectable heart defect. Still, Angle hinted that perhaps Ritter's death should send a message to others: Get regular checkups.

"I couldn't believe it [upon hearing about Ritter's death]," Angle said. "Personally, I think everything's detectable. God bless John. I don't know the facts of his case. Maybe he had himself tested, maybe he didn't."

As Angle spoke to ABCNEWS.com, he was on his on his way to East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., where he would defend his WWE title. Later in the week, he was scheduled to headline other shows in Raleigh, N.C., and then in New York City at Madison Square Garden.

Angle the Olympic competitor and sports entertainer (WWE's term for its wrestlers) looked forward to the shows as well as next year's Wrestlemania XX, to be held at Madison Square Garden. He said he'd like to call out of retirement a man who's considered a pro wrestling legend in the United States and Canada.

"I'd love to step in the ring with Bret Hart," Angle said. "Many consider him the greatest wrestler of the 20th century and some have said I'm the greatest wrestler of the new millennium. So, I'd like to put out an open invitation to Bret Hart."

Still, Angle the father — who at times has to spend four or five days a week on the road away from his wife and daughter in Pittsburgh — knows his fight against heart disease will continue, even after his wrestling days are over. After all, he'd like to see his baby girl grow up. He also doesn't want her to be deprived of knowing some of the members of her family.

"It's our responsibility to make sure our children grow up with both parents," Angle said. "It's unfair for children to have to grow up not knowing one of their parents, some of their relatives. Children should know at least two of their grandparents."

Editor's Note: Angle's sister LeAnne, who suffered a heart attack last year, suddenly passed away after he talked to ABCNEWS.com. He is taking some time off from his WWE schedule to be with his family.

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