Heart, health, Peter Berg and coastal rowing
Peter Berg, the Swedish men’s solo sculler, refuses to let up after three heart surgeries and more than a dozen World Rowing Coastal Championships races. He is competing at the 2020 European Rowing Coastal Challenge in Livorno, Italy this weekend.
Berg is a World Rowing Coastal Champion and has a stack of world-level coastal medals to his name, but like the bumps and turns of a coastal race, his journey in rowing has been anything but straight-forward.
He started his rowing career with flatwater rowing at age 14. But a few years later, his local club in Helsingborg, Sweden started to promote coastal rowing and Berg joined in. He immediately fell in love with the sport.
“I was a bit sceptical at first. The boats looked a bit different. But once I got out and tried it, the waves and the ocean were so fun, almost like a mountain bike type of rowing,” Berg says.
After a couple years of competing in both flatwater and coastal rowing, Berg was faced with his first major health challenge. “I started to have some problems with my pulse and heart around 2009. I needed a surgery, but I had to make a real effort to get it,” he says.
Berg explains that the healthcare system in Sweden is set up to take care of everyone and protect people from any financial burdens if they need extensive care. But his surgery was low on the priority list. His condition posed no real health threat – at least, if he stopped rowing.
“It was a very murky period. Basically I got the diagnosis, you can't continue rowing,” Berg says. He refused to give up.
Finally, in 2011 he was able to get the operation that would allow him to continue his rowing career. He competed that same year at the World Rowing Coastal Championships and earned a podium finish. Yet for Berg something was still missing. He was determined to become a World Rowing Coastal Champion. When the championships were awarded to his hometown of Helsingborg, it was an extra boost.
“When I started rowing, having a World Championships in Sweden was not an option, so to be able to compete at the world champs in Sweden, and in my home town, it was fantastic. I was really motivated to keep on going. I had the operation, I was healthy, was feeling really strong,” he says.
It was looking to be a good year for Berg, until personal tragedy struck. Early in 2013, his mother passed away.
“She was maybe the biggest influence for me to keep fighting when I had problems with my heart. She was a role model for me to follow, you can do it as long as you keep your focus kind of person,” he says.
Following his mother’s true spirit, Berg found his motivation for the championships.
“I got myself together to do a final push to the 2013 championships and ended up taking another podium finish, taking the third place. It was very emotional,” he says.
And yet it was still not the gold he was looking for. That would take another year.
Going into the 2014 season, Berg was ready for it. He stepped up his training, his erg times were looking good and he was convinced this would be his year. Just three weeks before the Championships in Thessaloniki, Greece, he was competing in Spain and his heart started racing.
“Halfway through, I had to abort the race. I had to go to the beach and got some help from the doctors. Again the same problem with my heart that I had a number of years ago. That was a very big blow mentally. The problem had not gone away,” says Berg.
Two days later, he was in the hospital in Sweden, getting his heart shocked back into rhythm. The doctor told him he would need another surgery, but for now he could continue to train. Determined, Berg made a ten-step plan counting down to the 2014 World Rowing Championships.
His heart held up through the tests he did during training and he was starting to feel convinced that this would finally be his year. In Thessaloniki, he made it through the heats into the final. And then it was all he could do to avoid any mistakes.
“On the final day, the weather was so bad. But it was the same weather I was so used to in Helsingborg. So at the start line, I deliberately took a worse position. I was so full of confidence that the heavy headwind would be in my favour, I just needed to avoid a crash at the start,” he says.
It worked. In 2014, Peter Berg finally earned the World Rowing Coastal Championships title in the men’s solo. Berg describes it as an ‘out-of-body’ experience and says it was a few months before it actually sunk in.
In the years since, Berg has not hung up his oars. He has continued to compete at coastal rowing events and the coastal championships. He has also undergone two more surgeries on his heart. But he says the last surgery in 2016 seems to have done the trick and he is now ready to go for it one more time.
“I am now taking my decision to really go for it in 2021,” says Berg. “I will take fewer working hours to give myself a really good shot to get back in the same form I was in in 2014, and give myself a good shot to get back in the medal fight.”
Watch out coastal rowing world, Peter Berg is back.