LAKEWOOD RANCH — Nels Matson isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.
Instead, the former Iowa State University wrestler is preparing constantly for his next great adventure in life.
Last year, however, Matson discovered his next challenge would revert him back to his childhood.
Matson doesn’t remember the day his life changed forever; after all, it was 27 years ago. But at 3 years old, he walked into the waiting room at Memorial Children’s Hospital in Chicago with a broken heart.
Born with a congenital heart defect, Matson underwent open-heart surgery. He spent the next two years going in for checkups, before eventually being cleared for everything when he was 5 years old.
At that point, the sky was the limit. Matson started wrestling a year later.
“My parents didn’t give me any limitations,” Matson says.
Mending broken hearts
It’s been more than two decades since Matson’s life changed forever, and the experience stays with him.
He’s learned to live life without boundaries and, in doing so, has taken it upon himself to reach out to those living with similar circumstances.
Now, the Lakewood Ranch High assistant wrestling coach is preparing for his next challenge — one that will take him 1,200 miles from Bradenton to the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Matson will run roughly 40 miles per day from June 15 through July 19 to raise money for Hearts Without Boundaries, a national non-profit organization that funds cardiac teams from the United States to perform heart surgeries on impoverished Cambodian children who are suffering from congenital heart defects.
Throughout his journey, Matson will be carrying his companion, Diplo the Diplomatic Penguin, on his back.
The 2-pound stuffed penguin will be wearing a T-shirt, which children and adults with congenital heart defects will be encouraged to sign. At the end of his trip, Matson will give Diplo to the Ankor Children’s Hospital for the Cambodian children.
“It’ll be like they’re taking the trip with me,” Matson says. “I’m really looking forward, not necessarily to the end, but seeing the kids (who sign the shirt) impact other kids and seeing Diplo with them.
“I think it’ll be fun for the kids knowing they’re encouraging kids in Cambodia,” he says.
Through his non-profit organization, Tri 4 Number 1 Foundation Inc., which he established with his girlfriend, Denise Pizzo, Matson hopes to raise $20,000 for Hearts Without Boundaries.
Hearts Without Boundaries also provides funding to transport Cambodian children with the most severe congenital heart defects to the United States for life-saving heart surgeries and medical care.
About 100,000 children in Cambodia are living with some form of congenital heart defect. But, without the necessary funding and medical supplies, the majority of those cases go untreated.
It costs more than $3,000 to perform a single heart surgery in Cambodia.
Matson raised money for congenital heart defect research by cycling across America in 2010 and 2011, but last year he discovered Hearts Without Boundaries.
While speaking at a Mended Little Hearts of Volusia County gala, Matson met Hearts Without Boundaries founder Peter Chhun. After hearing Chhun’s story and understanding his passion for helping Cambodian children, Matson knew he had to help.
“I’ve always been interested in congenital heart defects,” Matson says. “It’s something that’s been close to me for a while. Say someone like me was born in Cambodia. Then what? It’s pretty amazing what they’re doing for kids.”
Matson ran his first ultra-marathon last summer, completing 76 miles in 24 hours.
“That’s when it kicked in that this idea was possible,” Matson says. “I’m a runner now.”
Matson began training for his run in November. He runs five days a week, alternating distances every day and making sure to include one longer 15- to 30-mile run.
“That’s the not fun one,” Matson says.
For more information on the Tri 4 Number 1 Run, to make a donation or to become a sponsor, visit t41run.com or contact Matson at [email protected].
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].