While much of the talk around this year’s Tour de France centres on the comeback and life story of Lance Armstrong, he’s not the only man in the race to have made a ‘miracle’ recovery from illness. And, if anything, the story of Hayden Roulston is even more miraculous.
The New Zealand Olympic silver medallist thought he might never compete in professional cycling again when, in 2006, he was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD)
This is also known as Naxos Disease and is a hereditary heart condition caused by genetic defects of the parts of the heart muscle known as desmosomes, areas on the surface of heart muscle cells which link the cells together. The desmosomes are composed of several proteins, and many of those proteins can have harmful mutations.
ARVD is closely linked with sudden death from cardiac arrest, particularly among the young. In Italy, the incidence is 40/10,000, making it the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in the young population.
Just before he was diagnosed, Roulston had spent a handful of seasons competing for professional teams Cofidis and Lance Armstrong's Discovery Team. But when his condition was diagnosed in 2006, he was told to stop competing.
It was a devastating blow, but just four months after the diagnosis he met an alternative healer during a pub session with his mates in Christchurch. The undrunk beer went flat as he talked to Julie Reid, and found that all hope might not yet be lost.
She gave him a quick five-minute session of reiki -- an ancient Japanese healing practice which is said to channel negative energy out of the body – but it failed to produce any obvious results until his next bike session.
"I had finished with cycling, all my dreams were gone. I had nothing to lose," he said.
"Next day I went training and felt something different.
"I wasn't missing a heart beat and I was getting 300 beats per minute on a heart-rate monitor.
"A 300 rate means virtual death -- my normal heart-rate is 170 to 180 -- so, for me, 300 was a massive, massive issue.
"I had another treatment, but what is amazing is that Julie was still learning about reiki herself and the energy she has which is super powerful.
"I was totally sold after that -- it blew me away to see her response: her hands were shaking and she was sweating from taking the bad energy out of my body."
Regular reiki sessions saw Roulston improve so much that he returned to competition, and ended up standing on the podium in Beijing after winning silver in the individual pursuit , and bronze in the team pursuit.
And, just last weekend, Roulston, a member of the Cervelo team, came third in stage 14 of the Tour – something he could never have imagined three years ago. He now has medical confirmation that he has a healthy heart.
"It's like a second life and I have got my dream back as a cyclist," he said. “It's hard for a New Zealander, or anyone outside of Europe, to get a shot at the pros, but I am very lucky to get a second chance.
"It was only nine months ago I was at (New Zealand's) Tour of Southland questioning whether I could win that race -- now I am at the Tour de France and fighting for a stage win a few days ago."
He finished third on Saturday's stage behind Katusha's Sergei Ivanov after the Russian made a stage-winning breakaway move 11 kilometres out to hold off Ireland's Nicolas Roche, who came second, just ahead of Roulston.
"It was a great achievement, I was initially disappointed and I still fully believe I can win a stage, but third is pretty good," he said.
After his battle in France is done, Roulston will return home to continue his studies in reiki. While there is no scientific evidence to prove that reiki works, the hands-on treatment which originated in Japan has millions of devotees around the world who attest to its physical and mental healing powers.
"I have changed, it has fully changed my attitude to life; everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I could have accepted the first diagnosis and said 'that's it', but I kept my mind open for a second alternative and I started to learn about the real me."