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A year after open-heart surgery, former UAA star watches with gusto and gratitude as his kids compete

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: September 20
  • Published September 19

Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, left, and his son Niko Latva-Kiskola, a cross-country runner for Dimond High, at Kincaid Park earlier this season. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, 55 and the father of three young athletes, doesn't need to live vicariously through his children. He's an accomplished athlete in his own right, one who garnered NCAA All-America honors in 1991 while a member of the UAA cross-country ski team.

Yet make no mistake: Watching his kids compete is one of the joys of his life. Especially since it wasn't that long ago that his life hung in the balance.

Latva-Kiskola, who came to Alaska from Finland on a ski scholarship in the mid-1980s, is approaching the one-year anniversary of open-heart surgery that repaired a defective valve and enlarged aorta.

Over the last year, with a pacemaker in place to keep his heart beating at the proper rate, he has worked his way back to a normal life.

He runs at least 30 minutes every day, he does physically demanding work as a physical rehabilitation and massage therapy specialist, and he watches with gusto and gratitude as his kids compete in cross country, soccer and skiing.

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"He progressed at a rate that doctors could not predict," said 17-year-old Niko Latva-Kiskola, a Dimond High senior who stars in soccer and cross country. "It's very surprising how quickly he recovered.

"He didn't always listen to his doctors. We have a coffee mug that says, 'You can tell a Finn, but you can't tell him much.' "

Thanks to a recovery spurred by a combination of hardheadedness and hard work, Latva-Kiskola was in the bleachers last spring when Niko booted the winning penalty kick for Dimond High in the Class 4A state championship soccer match.

And he'll be on the trails Saturday for the Cook Inlet Conference cross-country championships at Bartlett High, where Niko is expected to be among the race's top finishers.

Niko Latva-Kiskola, right, is tagged by teammate Fred Rygh at a cross country relay race last month at Kincaid Park. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Just beginning their high school careers are twins Tarja and Markus, who are 14-year-old freshmen at Dimond. Markus runs cross country and plays soccer, and Tarja is an Alaska Winter Stars skier with enough promise to make her dad think she soon will surpass him on the ski trails ("I think my daughter is going to kick my ass," he said).

As a UAA senior in 1991, Latva-Kiskola kicked some ass himself, claiming All-America honors by placing ninth in the 20-kilometer classic race at the NCAA Championships.

He married Jennifer Golick, an Anchorage woman he met at UAA, and put down roots here. He maintained his fitness over the years and often competed in local skiing and running races.

Latva-Kiskola was running at Kincaid Park two years ago when he became disoriented and wound up falling to the ground. Another runner, someone he didn't know, stopped to help.

"I have no idea how long I was there," he said.

He carried on as if nothing had happened. Two weeks later, he was at an auto shop to pick up his wife's car, "and the guy next to me said, 'I think you are about to pass out.' ''

That inspired a trip to the hospital, where Latva-Kiskola was urged to get checked out at the Alaska Heart Institute.

"That's where they discovered I was born with a defective valve," he said.

He also learned he had an enlarged aorta, which made him a candidate for surgery. On Oct. 19 of last year, he underwent an open-heart procedure at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic.

Latva-Kiskola said that after the operation, his surgeon told him the defective valve "had a little bit of life left but was in really bad shape." Ditto for the enlarged aorta.

"Later I asked him, 'What do you think, would I have survived a year?' And he said, 'I doubt it,' '' he recalled.

Recovery was difficult, he said. He avoided pain medication, choosing pain over potential addiction. It was easy to get depressed. He wasn't allowed to drive for several weeks, and he wasn't allowed to lift anything "for weeks and weeks," making it impossible to perform his job.

"I took months off from my work. It was brutal financially," he said. "It took me a long time before I was able to use my body in my job."

Watching his dad struggle physically was as weird as it was difficult, Niko said. This is a man who sets goals and works hard to achieve then, "whether it be going up a hill in cross-country skiing or doing an extra shift at work."

"To see him on his knees and having a hard time getting around was hard," Niko said.

Niko said his dad has always inspired him. "He came here not knowing much English, and he didn't just learn to speak it, he earned a degree in the English language while doing athletics on the side," he said. "I went to Finland for a bit and I cannot imagine getting a degree in a foreign language. It's amazing that he can do it all."

Looking back, Latva-Kiskola said it was as if there was a ticking bomb in his body that went unnoticed for more than 50 years.

"If I hadn't had any symptoms," he said, "I wouldn't have done anything about it."

Although he isn't back to where he used to be physically, Latva-Kiskola said it feels like he got a second chance. He can jog every day and he's able to watch his children pursue their goals on the running trails and soccer pitches.

"Now I'm just enjoying watching the kids do the sports," he said.

The pleasure goes both ways, said Niko, who noted that his mother has had a pacemaker since she was a teenager.

"It's more than special when you have parents with heart issues, to know they'll be able to watch you," he said. "Especially my dad, because that's what he grew up with, athletics.

"It's a joy."

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