Reusse: Gophers' Dixon opted for heart surgery to keep playing volleyball

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2013 - 6:52 AM
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Gophers middle blocker Tori Dixon leads the team in hitting percentage (.404), kills (331) and blocks (117) as a senior.

Photo: File photo by MARISA WOJCIK • Star Tribune,

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The demands on a Division I volleyball player might be greater than for any college athlete. The regular season for the 2013 Gophers calls from 33 matches from the end of August to the end of November, followed by what has become annual participation in the NCAA’s 64-team tournament.

There is also a spring schedule in volleyball. There are grinding, offseason workouts, and there are in-season practices that can last for three hours. Full bore. Vaulting, hitting, blocking, setting, diving, digging.

Tori Dixon took the usual route to being recruited to big-time college volleyball: displaying her talent with a club team (Northern Lights).

The best guess on Dixon’s part is that it was in the spring of 2008, playing for her club team, that she started to pay attention to episodes of her heart rate “racing out of control.”

Dixon’s response was to make a joke about it to teammates, and to blame it on fatigue and/or dehydration.

“I would think, ‘I must not have slept well last night,’ or ‘I have to drink more water,’ ” Dixon said. “I always had a few episodes of a rapid heartbeat, but what changed was the frequency: from maybe once a month, to once a week, to a few times a week, to multiple times a day.

“I finally said, ‘This can’t be normal.’ ”

Dixon had made it through three sterling years as a middle blocker for the Gophers. She had received an invitation from USA Volleyball to attend the national team camp in Colorado Springs in July 2013.

That made her one of three collegians among the two dozen candidates invited to coach Karch Kiraly’s camp.

Hugh McCutcheon was Kiraly’s predecessor as national coach. He’s now in his second season as the Gophers coach. He was among those curious in February workouts as to why the 6-3 Dixon wasn’t having her usual finish at the front of team sprints.

“Nobody said it directly, but I think the coaches were wondering if I was slacking off,” Dixon said.

That never would be the case with a competitor such as Dixon. It was fatigue. It was her racing heart. It was atrioventricular nodal reentrant tachycardia.

A reporter said to Dixon this week: “If you can spell it, they hand you a diploma.”

Tori smiled and said: “In that case, I’m not getting one.”

(Note: Actually, she is, in December after 3½ years, in sports management).

One workout day last February, Dixon went to team trainer Ronni Beatty-Kollasch and was crying.

“I’ve never seen that,” Beatty-Kollasch said. “Tori’s not the type to cry about anything. But she told me about her heart pounding, her fatigue.

“We’re fortunate to be at this university, with our great hospital and great doctors. It didn’t take long for them to figure it out.”

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