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A man’s coast-to-coast journey of the heart

For one of the few times in the last 43 days, Nels Matson slept late Wednesday.

No getting up at 5 a.m.

No 100-miles-plus daily bike ride, either.

“I need at least a week to recover,” said the 27-year-old Bradenton resident from his New York City hotel room. “But I believe I will attempt it again.”

His is a noble mission.

When Matson biked into the Big Apple for Tuesday morning’s “Today Show,” it marked the culmination of a one-man, cross-country campaign to raise funds for the Children’s Heart Foundation.

Starting June 8 from Santa Monica, Calif., the IMG Academies English teacher, accompanied by girlfriend Denise Pizzo in a support van, pedaled 3,709 miles across 15 states.

Why?

Matson is a congenital heart defect survivor, who overcame CHD to eventually wrestle at Iowa State and later become a triathlete.

That CHD is the No. 1 birth defect in the United States, affecting 40,000 babies yearly, as well as 1-in-100 worldwide, spurred his remarkable journey.

“To look at me it’s hard to tell I had open heart surgery. So I knew about CHD, but this was eye-opening. I didn’t know how often it occurred,” said the Ames, Iowa, native who was diagnosed at 3. “It motivates me to raise more money for research. I don’t want to see kids have to go through multiple heart surgeries. It’s something I’d like to see come to and end.”

His fundraiser was a first for CHF.

“Nels Matson shares our passion,” said executive director William Foley.

Matson’s goal was $100,000, but only $25,000 was raised.

Yet he is undeterred because of those he touched and touched him during the trip.

At many of his destinations — from cities like Denver and Philadelphia to towns like Sutton, Neb. — he rode with children who survived CHD and parents of children who did not.

“It was an experience,” Matson said.

A positive one for people who met him.

Like Cole Klein’s family, who rode along in Papillion, Neb., two weeks before the 7-year-old’s third heart procedure.

“What Nels is doing is huge,” Tiffany Klein said. “He gave my son confidence precisely at the right time. He showed him he’s not alone, that his heart doesn’t limit who he is.”

Another child, a Denver 7-year-old who’s already had six procedures, made a heart patch for Matson’s sleeve.

Many autographed his bike.

Looking down at those names was all the motivation Matson needed to carry on.

“Some of them are strong little kids,” he said. “You look at what they’ve been through — riding your bike across the country is nothing.”

That’s saying something.

Within one 48-hour stretch, Matson dealt with 110-degree heat in the Mojave Desert and a hailstorm at 10,000 feet in Utah.

“That,” he said, “was a pretty crazy two days.”

There may be more, too, he said, in his personal crusade.

“Nels Matson’s story resonates with people across the country, particularly with children and families who have lived, or are living, with congenital heart defects,” said CHF president Megan Van Pelt. “He’s proof nothing is impossible for these kids.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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