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Most of us take our health for granted. We often assume that because we appear to be healthy on the outside, that everything within us is also functioning the way in which it was intended. We can easily feel our heart beating inside of our chest and don’t really put much thought into the inner workings of this complex organ. Luckily, for 30 year old Nels Matson, he was in the right place at the right time and was given a second chance at life.

In November of 1984, 2 year old Nels was along for the ride at his sister Gretchen’s 8 week check-up. By chance, the family doctor decided to listen to Nels’ heart and what he heard resulted in him immediately instructing Nels’ mother to rush him to the hospital. Nels’ heart sounded like a washing machine. It was there, at a hospital in Springfield, IL that it was determined: Nels had a hole in his heart.

The following February, when a cardiac catheterization was performed on Nels, it was discovered that he had at least one pulmonary vein going into the wrong side of his heart. He was scheduled to have open heart surgery in July at Chicago Children’s Memorial Hospital and during the procedure, it was also found that he had THREE anomalous pulmonary veins in addition to the atrial septal defect. The surgery went extremely well and within four days, he was a typical mischievous 3 year old boy, being scolded for moving furniture around in the hospital nursery.

3 year old Nels following his surgery

3 yr old Nels following his surgery

Nels lived a very normal childhood. He was cleared for all activities by the time he was 5 years old and shortly after, he and his family moved to Iowa. He was greatly influenced by his Uncle Brian, who was a wrestler, and this became Nels main sport. Once he was in high school, Nels ran cross country to maintain his endurance for wrestling. As a decorated and talented wrestler, Nels was a state qualifier twice and even walked on to the Iowa State University wrestling squad in 2001!

My parents were very supportive of any challenge I wanted to take on, although they never allowed me to ride bulls.

In 2009, Nels life changed forever. For the first time, he researched his congenital heart defect and was shocked to learn that 1% of the world’s population is born with this condition. Around the same time, Nels had just been challenged by a friend to complete a 70.3 triathlon and although he didn’t even own a bike and had never trained in swimming, he signed up for the race, ready to get the job done. Coincidentally, during this same time frame, he stumbled upon a documentary about an obese woman who ran a marathon to raise funds for her friend who was ill. It was then that Nels became inspired to make his first triathlon a fundraising event. The stars aligned and he was able to raise over $2,000 for congenital heart defect research.

Upon finishing his first triathlon, Nels thought he had mastered cycling and decided he wanted to cycle across America.

I thought, what better way to get the word out about congenital heart defects than going from town to town and getting communities involved. I selected local children to honor as I cycled through each city and was fortunate enough to have many of them cycle along side me for a mile or so.

Nels completed his journey across the United States with the signatures of many children who have heart defects on his bike, raising approximately $19,000 for research. Nels was even interviewed on the Today Show as shown in this clip!

As if this wasn’t enough, Nels completed the transcontinental bike ride for a second time. This time, the crossing was completed with another cyclist and together, they were able to raise approximately $35,000!

So, you may wonder, what does an ambitious young wrestling coach do now in his spare time? Well, the answer comes as no surprise to me. He is training to run 1,200 miles from Bradenton, FL to the Cambodian Embassy in Washington D.C. benefiting an organization called Hearts Without Boundaries (HWB). Hearts Without Boundaries provides impoverished children in Cambodia life saving heart surgeries. They do this by funding volunteer medical teams from the United States to go to Cambodia to perform the surgeries. For more complicated cases, HWB brings the patients to the U.S.A or other countries.

Nels will run the entire journey with Diplo, The Diplomatic Penguin in a pack on his back. Diplo is a plush penguin that children with heart defects along the way will sign. At the end of the run, Diplo will be given as a gift of support to the children facing surgeries in Cambodia. There will also be designated “Heart Diplomats” along his route…children with congenital heart defects that have shared their story with their community and are also fundraising for their friends in Cambodia.

Nels and Diplo: The significance of the penguin in that like many children with heart defects, penguins also face many challenges throughout their journey of life

Nels and Diplo: “The significance of the penguin is that like many children with heart defects, penguins also face many challenges throughout their journey of life”

The goal of Nels’ most recent project is to raise enough money to fund at least 7 surgeries. With the cost of each surgery being approximately $3,000, the goal is $21,000. The run has been titled Tri 4 Number 1 Run and will begin at 7:00 am on June 15th from Pier 22 in Bradenton, FL. The run will end at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington DC on July 19th. Nels will be running through Tampa, Orlando, Daytona, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Savannah GA, Columbia SC, Charlotte NC, and Richmond VA! To see a more detailed chart of his route, click here! (the main website can be found here: http://www.t41run.com/)

How can you help?


Aside from donating, a great deal of help comes from sharing information regarding this project with people! Currently, there are approximately 100,000 Cambodian children suffering from congenital heart defects and very few are ever treated.


Nels would love your support by just showing up and sharing the open road with him! Tell families that have children with congenital heart defects to come out, say hello and sign Diplo!


Nels and his support team still have a few nights of non-sponsored lodging. Also, any additional nutritional donations you or someone you know could provide would be greatly appreciated! (as you can imagine, a run of this caliber requires some major fueling!)