Shawn Hunsberger’s heart surgery 15 years ago inspired his career |

Shawn Hunsberger’s heart surgery 15 years ago inspired his career

Scott CondonThe Aspen Times
Fitness coach Shawn Hunsberger leads a indoor cycling class at Basalt Fitness Wednesday.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

When faced with a life-threatening medical condition as a young man, Shawn Hunsberger took it to heart.

Hunsberger had two heart valves replaced 15 years ago this month at age 20. It was a life-altering experience that ended up inspiring him to make a career out of health and fitness.

The procedure was performed on a Friday the 13th that also happened to be Good Friday that year. It’s part of Hunsberger’s disposition to look at situations half full rather than half empty, so he was fine with the date when he was fitted with two mechanical values. It was a “full zipper, crack your sternum open” process, he said.

Hunsberger, who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley with his family at an early age, was a typical 20-year-old. He was an avid mountain biker and snowboarder but gyms were a foreign place for him. Oh, and he could hold his own while partying. “I was walking on the wrong side of the tracks,” he said with a grin.

He was born with a heart murmur and had to go to the cardiologist once a year. Doctors told him, “Some day you’ll have to deal with this,” he said. “Some day came.”

After the procedure at University Hospital in Denver, he breezed through the cardio rehab program at Aspen Valley Hospital in three months and was urged to stay fit but not exceed a heart rate of 145 beats per minute.

“It was humbling,” he said of the change. One of his best friends, a cigarette smoker, bought a mountain bike to assist Shawn in his recovery. Shawn’s girlfriend and now wife, Katie, also rode with him when he was able to get back on a bike that August. Their joke out on the trail was they were a trio of a cardio patient, a smoker and an asthmatic.

“We were slow but we stuck with it,” Hunsberger said.

That winter, he started attending indoor cycling classes at a midvalley gym owned then by Steve Reynolds. He started easing past the 145 beats per minute barrier one beat at a time. Eventually he was attending seven cycling classes per week and had his heart rate up to 180.

Reynolds needed a substitute teacher one day. He recruited Shawn because he was such a regular participant. “He hands me a cassette and says, ‘Hit play and tell them to work harder,” Hunsberger recalled. And he got paid for doing it.

Shawn was building a career in banking at the time, in 2002, but was inspired by Reynolds to pursue personal training certification. He’s never looked back.

In addition to Reynolds, other inspirations have been trainer Jerry Hessig, who also experienced heart valve replacement, and Tai Chi instructor Bob Cook. Hunsberger said his experiences helped ground him on the idea of long-term health and fitness.

Hunsberger has remained a regular teacher of classes at midvalley facilities over the last 14 years and he does business as Phoenix Fitness, which has a web address of http://www.pfcolorado. He teaches everything from indoor cycling to “Strong and Stable,” which melds a foundation in flexibility, stability, strength and power with reactive, speed, agility and quickness training.

He’s got loyal customers. Some of them have taken his classes since 2004.

At age 35, the mechanical heart valves don’t hold him back. He is a model of fitness. He and Katie celebrated the birth of their third son this week.

Hunsberger said he wouldn’t have pursued a career in fitness if not for his heart valve replacements.

“The heart surgery really turned me,” he said, noting that he still holds the day of his surgery in high regard. “I typically celebrate it like anther birthday.”

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