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Barsi-Rhyne looks to next season after surgery

Young pair skater, with partner Fujimoto, overcomes adversity and looks to 2009-10

Cali Fujimoto and Nicholas Barsi-Rhyne finished seventh in novice pairs at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Championships in Cleveland.
Cali Fujimoto and Nicholas Barsi-Rhyne finished seventh in novice pairs at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Championships in Cleveland. (Paul Harvath)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(05/25/2009) - Nicholas Barsi-Rhyne is accustomed to being on the ice for several hours at a time, but these days he doesn't have the energy to do much more than some basic stroking.

He and his partner, Cali Fujimoto, are just happy he's able to skate at all.

On April 10, Barsi-Rhyne, who with Fujimoto finished seventh in novice pairs at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, endured five hours of surgery to remove a membrane in his aorta. The membrane was blocking blood flow to the rest of his body, causing him to fatigue more easily as his heart rate increased.

The procedure was a success, but it was not without its aftereffects.

"I felt terrible for two weeks. I had bad migraines for a week," Barsi-Rhyne said. "I was really out of breath from simple things like walking."

Barsi-Rhyne was born with an aortic coarctation, which is a narrowing of the aorta, the major artery leading out of the heart. This condition causes increased blood pressure in the arms and head and makes it harder for the heart to get blood to the lower extremities.

When he was just three days old, Barsi-Rhyne underwent surgery to repair this defect, one that involved doctors transplanting an artery from his arm to his heart, after which he remained in the hospital for two weeks.

"It was a shock," his mother, Dana Barsi, said. "You don't ever think you're going to have a baby that has a problem."

Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Barsi-Rhyne regularly visited a doctor twice a year to check up on his condition.

"They thought the membrane could get larger as I was growing, and it did," Barsi-Rhyne said.

That left him with two options: have the surgery now or hold off on it and have to get a valve replacement sometime in the future.

"That would have been a lot more dangerous, a lot more risky," he said. "I would have had to do that every five or 10 years."

Besides sapping his stamina, the surgery caused him to lose 10 pounds. As someone who stands 6-1 1/2 and weighed about 155 pounds before the surgery, Barsi-Rhyne could ill afford to lose any weight and expect to be back in training shape in time for the upcoming season.

"It definitely sets us a little behind," he said. "It's going to make me even more motivated and want to come back even stronger."

As if his physical condition didn't present enough of a challenge, Barsi-Rhyne and Fujimoto are also debuting two new programs this season, which for them, as members of U.S. Figure Skating's Developmental Team, begins Aug. 6-9 at the Quebec Summer Championships. Knowing how much training time they were going to miss, their choreographer, Rudy Galindo, finished working on their new free skate and half of their new short program before the surgery.

Their primary coach, Tracy Prussack, has been very supportive during Barsi-Rhyne's recovery, helping him gradually get back into shape. Five weeks after the aortic valve bypass surgery, on May 18, Barsi-Rhyne returned to the rink, spending 20 minutes on the ice. He's slowly increased how long he skates at a time and plans to be back to his normal two-hour sessions by the middle of June.

"He's happy to be back on the ice, even if he's just stroking," Fujimoto said. "Being at the rink and seeing everyone makes him a lot happier."

Of all the pairs on Team USA, only Rena Inoue and John Baldwin and Chloe Katz and Joseph Lynch have competed together longer.

Fujimoto and Barsi-Rhyne have made it this far, so why would they let a silly, little thing like heart surgery bring an end to their promising partnership?

"I don't think [Barsi-Rhyne's surgery] will hurt us at all," Fujimoto said. "It'll help us because I know he's healthier, and we can move forward from this and just skate."