Adler Paddler

Jodie Nelson and Peter Tsai on the beach during last year's Adler Paddler.

Paddleboarding can be a common pastime for people and others may not have tried it. But people can paddle for more than fun with a free event this weekend.

The Seventh Annual Adler Paddler — raising money for the John Ritter Foundation — will be at 9 a.m. Sunday, March 19, at the United States Sailing Center, 5489 E. Ocean Blvd.

“It’s pretty much the same as last year,” organizer and pro surfer Jodie Nelson said. About 200 paddlers attended each of the four previous years. The average age has been 43, with 70% men and 30% women, she said.

“They think it’s more of a racing tournament,” Nelson said. “But we have a non-timed race, too.”

Nelson, who also is Paddle with Purpose founder, said she began the organization and the event after her friend Steve Adler died from an aortic dissection. His father also died from it, she said. She had been training with Adler to become the first woman paddleboarder to cross from Dana Point to Catalina Island. Nelson completed the 40-mile route on March 28, 2010, in just more than nine hours.

In a bit of serendipity, a few months prior, the morning of Nov. 30, 2009, Dr. Peter Tsai said he was lifting weights at his gym when his life changed.

"Back then, my nickname was "Asian Monster," he said. "I wasn't on any steroids. I was just working out six days a week, being healthy."

After a warmup of two repetitions of 220 pounds, he said he felt something blow and warmth across his chest. His pulse fluctuated up and down and it felt like someone was holding a torch to his upper back. 

"As an (acupuncture) doctor myself, I'd never encountered such a thing," Tsai said. "For some reason, it felt like I was going to die. I had weird sensations I'd never experienced before."

He debated continuing his workout, he said, grabbing a 55-pound barbell. But he had too much difficulty with it. He went downstairs to call his two brothers, who also were doctors, to double-check what heart attack symptoms were. Within 15 minutes, he said he was paralyzed. 

After the arrival of his wife and paramedics, he was at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, he said. 

"They didn't know what was wrong," Tsai said, but after an echocardiogram at about 3 p.m., they knew. 

"My brother said, 'Don't make a John Ritter out of my brother,'" Tsai said. 

He said he learned later that doctors had treated Ritter for a heart attack, which could have contributed to his death, as Ritter had suffered an aortic dissection.

The following day, Tsai said he was taken to the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center for emergency heart surgery — the only way he had any survival chance.

By 2012, after a painful recovery, Tsai said he managed his first sprint triathlon. By the following year, he started Aortic Warriors, for aortic dissection survivors, which became a nonprofit in 2015. Last year, the group had its first walk for aortic dissection awareness, he said.

The same year he began his group, Tsai said he was invited to Adler Paddler, where he met Nelson and others. He's participated since and will this year, he said. 

"I look at it from a survivor's standpoint," Tsai said of Adler Paddler. "Heart attacks are more prevalent. There's not much attention given to aortic dissection... Not because people don't care, but no money is invested in aortic dissection."

As far as his own recovery and organization, he uses the motto: never stop living; stay strong.

"I've adjusted myself a lot," Tsai said. "I've learned to adapt to my new normal and that doesn't mean that I'm losing anything in life."

For more information, visit paddlewithpurpose.org/pages/adlerpaddler or www.aorticwarriors.org

Emily Thornton can be reached at ethornton@gazettes.com

Emily is a staff writer covering higher education and other various topics for Gazette Newspapers. She has a background in weekly and daily newspapers and a bachelor’s in communication from La Sierra University.

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