Rick Armiger: Heart Disease Motivates Baltimore’s Ironman


Rick Armiger, a Sparks, Md. native, turned the worst days of his life into a desire to help everyday people with congenital heart disease.

Many of us have a passion that some might call an obsession.

Some like to sing. Others take pride in collecting items. I have always soaked in every piece of sports information given to me, whether it was through tv, radio or the internet. That fueled me to want to go to journalism school, be an editor here at The Baltimore Wire and do a weekly podcast called BMore Wired. It is what I love to do.

Then, there are those who take tragedy and use it as fuel to make a change in not only the community, but around the globe.

Rick Armiger is a Vice President at Morgan Stanley during the day until roughly around when the market closes at 4 p.m. He has been with the investing giant for over 20 years, advising individuals and non-profit organizations in today’s challenging economy. But once out of the office, he is a leader in helping the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital help raise money and awareness for people with cardiac disease.

His passion to help those with heart problems comes from the loss of his infant son, Emerson. Emerson was born in December 4, 1996, with a heart defect at St. Joseph Medical Center and transferred to the Children’s Hospital shortly afterwards. Every time he met with a new doctor, the news got worse and worse.

Then came the worst news that no parent wants to hear. On December 23, Emerson passed away due to his heart condition.  As Armiger would later say, the only good thing that would come out of the tragedy was his relationship with the hospital.

Armiger is a Maryland native, growing up in the Bel Air area. He attended The John Carroll School before attending college at Baylor University, where he earned his degree in German. He now speaks five languages: English, German, French, Swedish and Spanish.

Armiger took part in the Ironman European Championship last week in Frankfurt, Germany. It was the 25th Ironman event that he has participated in, and he has two more planned for later this summer. This one was special to him because it was a milestone reached in his fifth trip to the country he loves to visit.

He is no ordinary athlete entering this race either. He has been named an Ironman Gold All World Athlete the past three years. That honor means he is internationally ranked in the top 1 percent of all athletes in the 45-49 age group. He is currently ranked No. 13 in the United States and 67th in the world.

“Not bad for a guy who likes ice cream and pizza,” he joked.

When you look at Armiger, he is what you envision an All World Athlete: a tall, muscular frame with confidence that makes people want to gravitate towards him. So when he said that he went from weighing 210 lbs. to 250 lbs. in a year and down on his lifestyle, it was startling. It was this year that Emerson passed away and more heart issues came about.

He never took part in a marathon before his son passed away. It was not until his then-father-in-law died of a heart attack that he took up the hobby. His grandfather had also passed away from a heart disease at an early age, and his mother is having cardiac issues as well.

He entered his first triathlon in Colombia, Md. in 1998. He lost 25 pounds in his training and decided he wanted to do more of these events because he felt better. That’s when he said he became faster and more ambitious in his distances.

He did his first Ironman event in 2000 in Florida. He has since traveled to Lake Placid, Austria, Switzerland and Germany several times. He has been all throughout the world in his quest to spread his message about cardiac research.

As you can imagine, it is not easy to be a world-class athlete when you have a job and kids to look after. Finding time for training is the hardest part.

“You have kids. You have a job. Got a social life and a personal life. And then, you have training. Everything sort of has to fit like a puzzle,” he said. “You have to think ahead five or six steps. If something comes up, like if you need to be somewhere for your kids, how it impacts everything else. It becomes very exhausting.”

“I also think it is important to lead by an example. In particular for my kids, it’s important for me to live the lifestyle that I think they should see.”

His two children, Leland and Sophie, have been actively involved with the foundation. Both take part in the fundraising and compete in competitions of their own. I know this because I teamed up with the Armiger family at the 2013 Baltimore Running Festival. Leland, about half my age, was right behind me in the race.

“They do it in the honor of their older brother.”

Just because Armiger is one of the top athletes in the world does not mean his impact is not felt locally. He was a founding member of the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital Board of Vistors, and served as Chair from 2004-2009. The group raised about $10 million which help build the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and created a running team for the Children’s Heart Program at the hospital for additional fundraising.

This year, the Children’s Hospital is raising money for Dr. Sunjay Kaushal, a pediatric cardiac surgeon who is developing new options including stem-cell research that Armiger said “would have helped my son.” He described what Dr. Kaushal is hoping to achieve with his research:

“What happens in a child.. It is like your shoe. Your foot grows, but your shoe doesn’t. So when you have a heart transplanted, the heart stays the same size. But the body grows until you eventually outgrow the heart, so you need a new one that is bigger. His goal is to allow kids to have fewer heart transplants over the course of their lives.”

His desire to keep fighting heart disease did not stop there. Armiger co-founded the Ironheart Foundation with his good friend David Watkins in 2005. Watkins is a high school classmate that Armiger described as “one of those friends that even if you don’t talk to for six months or even a year, you just pick up right where you left off.”

Watkins had heart troubles of his own, and flat-lined after undergoing open heart surgery that year. Once Watkins was healthy again, the duo teamed up to form the foundation. The Ironheart Foundation now includes members from 48 states and 19 countries participating in more than 1,600 events a year.

“What we try to do is encourage people to be more active so that they can take their life back. And be the athlete in their head that they remember being or pursue. We want to show them there are a lot of people out there who have already done this. Have been down this road and thought it was the end of the world. And now they are living an entirely different life that they didn’t think they would be able to live.”

The Ironheart Foundation will have a screening for a film titled “HEART: Flatline to Finish Line” on July 21 at the Charles Theater in Baltimore. The film follows the lives of six people with heart issues that continue to defy the odds and compete in Ironman competitions. For more information about the screening, click here.

Armiger’s trip to Germany was a successful one. He finished the Ironman European Championship in 11 hours, 20 minutes and 47 seconds, his third-fastest time. He wrote on his Facebook after the race, “What a fantastic day it was racing in the Ironman European Championship today! I couldn’t be any happier!”

Next up for Armiger is Ironman Vineman in California in a few weeks. Before that, he will eat plenty of pizza and ice cream as he continues to raise awareness for congenital  heart disease.