EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — Every year, more than 800,000 Americans suffer a heart attack. 75 percent of those are someone having their first-ever, including some people you would never expect.

A world-class athlete is about the last person you might expect to suffer a heart attack. But that’s what happened to a Luzerne County native and champion triathlete who nearly died from his. Now, he and others are helping raise awareness to help save lives.

Timothy O’Donnell, 41, has long had the heart of a champion from an accomplished competitive swimmer in high school to now a world-class professional triathlete. But no amount of training could prepare him for what happened in March 2021.

“You know, I definitely didn’t feel right but I had no clue it was going to be, you know, a heart attack situation,” said Timothy O’Donnell, Pro Triathlete, suffered near-fatal heart attack.

He was mid-race at the Miami Challenge Triathlon when he felt something he never had before while competing.

“I started getting kind of a spreading pain across my chest and a shooting pain down my left arm and my jaw started to lock up,” O’Donnell said.

After powering through the rest of the 62-mile event

“Things just kept getting worse and worse,” O’Donnell explained.

O’Donnell was having a massive heart attack. He went to the hospital that night and underwent emergency surgery.

“They cleared out the blockage. I had over an 80 percent block of my LAD,” O’Donnell explained.

That type of blockage in his LAD or left anterior descending artery triggered his heart attack nicknamed the ‘widowmaker’ because patients rarely survive it. So what exactly was the underlying cause of O’Donnell’s near-fatal heart attack?

“One of the cardiologists I saw reminded me that you can’t out-fitness your genes,” O’Donnell stated.

It turns out O’Donnell has several markers that predispose him to cardiovascular disease, a disease something nearly half of American adults have including many who don’t know it. It’s why O’Donnell is serving as Honorary Ambassador of this weekend’s 2022 Northeast PA Heart Walk at PNC Field in Moosic.

“When you see somebody who is a premier athlete across the world and to think how it dramatically affected his life, then we have to include all of us. Knowing the warning signs, knowing the prevention that we can do,” said Jim Brogna, Vice President of Strategic Partnership Development, Allied Services.

“Learn your family history, that can provide huge insight into, you know, what may be in store for you down the road,” said O’Donnell.

The 2022 Northeast PA Heart Walk is happening Saturday morning, May 21, at 9:00 a.m. at PNC Field in Moosic, and registration begins at 8:00 a.m.