CODY, Wyo. — Once Colton Curtis' heart begins jackhammering, beating 300 to 400 percent faster than average, he doesn't know when the acceleration will stop.
That's the scary part. The arrhythmia rules. There is shortness of breath. His arms can go numb.
Curtis can be in the middle of a 100-yard freestyle race for the Cody boys swim team. He can be bending over to tie his shoe or blowing his trumpet. The attack comes out of nowhere with no warning for no obvious reason.
"My heart goes to about 200 to 300 beats per minute," Curtis said.
Usually, lying prone on the pool deck for a little while, his lanky body stretched out, will quell his heart rebellion.
Curtis' illness is called supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, and is characterized by excessively fast heart rhythm. The cause is irregular electrical impulses sent to the heart. About 200,000 cases a year are identified in the United States.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the contrast between Curtis' rpms is notable — a normal heartbeat is between 60 and 100 beats.
However, neither heartbeat nor much else is normal about Curtis' Bronc swim career.
Not only does he have a heart condition, he commutes 60 miles round-trip from Meeteetse to compete for Cody because Meeteetse High School has no swim team.
He is also the only senior on this year's team — and the team's top swimmer. All of that makes Curtis a minority of one, likely unique in American high school swimming.
Curtis, 18, demonstrated he is the best in the water for Cody in the 3A Absaroka Conference Championships.
He won two events, the 100 freestyle in 55.33 seconds and the 100 backstroke in 1:01.99. That earned him a share of the Athlete of the Meet award.
Few people besides Curtis' family inside the Rec Center, not the five other teams, nor their coaches, not many teammates, were aware of Curtis' journey overcoming health obstacles to reach this career pinnacle.
Junior Ethan Walton has witnessed Curtis haul himself out of the pool at a workout or meet and call a time out because of heart disruption.
"I've seen what's happened," Walton said. "You feel bad for him, of course. It's amazing he's still the best swimmer on the team. He's very determined. He's driven."
Coincidental word choice, but speaking of being driven, for five seasons, beginning in eighth grade, Curtis' parents Jay and Erin, and Colton after he got his license, believe they have put 25,000 miles on vehicles chauffeuring him from Meeteetse to Cody for practice.
That doesn't include meets. At least one parent attends every Cody meet, home or away, not merely as a friendly-faced spectator, but for emergency back-up.
"We feel one of us should be there in case there's an issue," Erin Curtis said.
Congenital heart defect
Colton was born in Bakersfield, California, where he began swimming at age 5.
"He always was a fish," Erin said.
The heart defect is congenital, but was not immediately diagnosed.
"When he was about 3 years old, he said, 'Mom, my heart's beating fast,'" Erin said.
While the SVT was detected, it did not impact Curtis for years. When he played football, hits triggered attacks. That was the end of football.
Jay Curtis is from Thermopolis. Erin is from San Diego, but family owned a ranch in Shell and she was visiting when they met.
They attended Northwest College and the University of Wyoming together. When Jay, who will become Powell's superintendent of schools in July, was looking to jump-start a career in school administration, opportunities were better in California.
Then Jay and Erin decided they preferred Colton and his younger sisters Gracen and Devon, who play basketball for Meeteetse, grow up in Wyoming.
"Do we really want to raise our kids in California?" Erin said.
Colton has attended Meeteetse schools since he was 9. But he took a swimming hiatus until eighth grade. Erin said the girls were taking dance in Cody, so it was no extra burden to drive Colton to swim practice.
"My mom brought it up," Colton said of his return to the pool.
Curtis' non-conference specialty is the 50-yard freestyle. Top competitors in that sprint take only two breaths per race and holding his breath is bad for Curtis' heart.
I know, I know, I know, Curtis admitted, but he refused to yield ground and drop the event.
Once, a couple of years ago, Curtis admittedly did something dumb. He got into a breath-holding contest with other swimmers.
"It wasn't a good idea," Curtis said.
His chest felt the squeeze, he couldn't regain his breath and he had to visit the West Park Hospital emergency room. Restoring proper heart rhythm took a while.
"It took one-and-a-half hours," Curtis said.
No slowing down
If fixing Curtis' heart condition were only so simple a 90-minute rest would cure it.
Between middle school and early high school, Curtis underwent three surgeries to repair his heart. Surgery for SVT is supposed to be 97 percent effective.
"He's in that 3 percent they can't fix," Erin said.
Curtis, who takes medication, has become his own best doctor, responding swiftly to symptoms.
"We got discouraged each time he had a procedure," Jay said. "But he has learned to manage it so well. He just doesn't let it slow him down. It used to make us a little nervous. We all kind of hold out the hope technology will improve."
Under Wyoming High School Activities Association rules, Curtis is allowed to swim for Cody because Meeteetse does not field a swim team.
Tony Hult, the Cody activities director, said such applications are routinely accepted. The difference in Curtis' case is that paperwork noting his supraventricular tachycardia was part of his physical chart.
Curtis is a Bronc in competition, but can't find his way around CHS without a GPS. Curtis believes he has stepped inside the building twice, seeking coach Buffy Allred's room. He got lost each time.
Besides swimming teammates, he knows some Cody students through Cody Missionary Alliance Church.
Through his religious interests Curtis spent the last two summers as a counselor for teenagers at an outdoors non-denominational Christian camp in Plumtree, N.C., guiding backpack trips, frequently on the Appalachian Trail.
For conference swim championships, Curtis inked two Bible verses on his left arm for inspiration.
One was Joshua 1:1-9, which reads in part, "Be strong and courageous ..."
The other was Jeremiah 29:11. A 16-year-old friend of Curtis' is in a coma due to an infection following a heart transplant in North Carolina.
The camp experience was in tune with Curtis' aspiration to attend the University of Wyoming to train for employment as a Game and Fish wildlife fisheries biologist.
The one drawback with the North Carolina sojourn was Curtis hiked so much, 7 miles a day or more, that he lost 10 pounds when he was trying to gain upper body weight and power. Hiking and swimming burn thousands of calories.
At 6-foot-1 and 162 pounds, Curtis possesses the lean body of a swimmer. But Olympic sprinters feature massively broad shoulders.
"I just can't seem to gain any weight," Curtis said.
That is despite doing one-arm, 50-pound barbell lifts and some reckless eating, which has less connection with nutrition than soy sauce does with Italian food.
Curtis loves the honey buns for sale in the machines at the Rec Center and Allred laughs over that eating habit. He devours Doritos. And glasses of iced tea. All at the same sitting. Nowhere is such a combination listed under a recommended healthy diet.
Seth Todd, a two-year Cody swim teammate, said he used to joke with Curtis about one way to gain weight.
"Eat a jar of mayonnaise," Todd said.
Sister Gracen said she marvels at how Colton can eat at home.
"He can eat two steaks," she said, "with the mashed potatoes and rolls."
Hey, Curtis protested, "I do love salads." He paused. "I do reward myself heavily."
Still, the skinny Curtis prevails.
Although teammates know Curtis has a heart ailment - he casually throws the phrase "I have a heart condition" into conversation - they do not know all the details and history of surgeries. Those who do consider him a role model.
Todd said when they were teammates, Curtis' situation "motivated me. I thought, 'Why do I feel like I need a rest?'"
Walton said Curtis is living proof "You can still rise above adversity."
No giving up
Allred and assistant coach Jason Koperski always keep an eye on Curtis when he is in the pool in case of a heart flare-up.
"You always have to have it in the back of your head," Koperski said. "It's like when we've had someone with asthma. But they've grown up with it and they know what to do."
This is Curtis' fourth year with the team — only the Feb. 24-25 state championships in Gillette remain. College swimming is not on his agenda.
"He's improved a lot every year," Allred said.
If Curtis is enduring a heart episode, he taps his chest to alert the coaches.
On Jan. 31, Curtis finished a race at Powell and lay down near an emergency exit where cold air leaked in.
The week before, Curtis scratched from an event at the Rec Center and lay down in the hallway behind the scorers' table.
"Usually, it takes five minutes tops," Curtis said.
Just once in his career Curtis' heart provoked him to stop during a race before the end, something he despised doing.
"It makes me dizzy," Curtis said of the accelerated heartbeat. "It makes my muscles weaker."
Meet officials are warned Curtis has a health issue so they don't overreact.
"You don't need to clear the pool or call 911," Koperski said.
Todd said he often worried about Curtis. If Curtis was recuperating from an attack he'd check on how he was doing.
"We'd even say a prayer," Todd said.
Sometimes Curtis is told swimming is bad for his heart and he should surrender the sport. He refuses.
"It's what I love to do," Curtis said. "I'm going to take the risk because I love it so much."
Curtis despised withdrawing from that one swim race due to his pounding heart, so he isn't about to quit swimming now with the finish line in sight.