Matt Fleming says cycling the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway for the Heart and Stroke Foundation isn’t a race – it’s a joyride.
“You see five- and six-year-olds on the back of their parents’ bikes, all the way up to people in their 70s,” says the 18-year-old Beacher. “It’s a lot of fun.”
As he gets set to join his sixth Ride for Heart on June 2, Matt can expect a few double-takes at the start line – his photo is splashed on seven by 10-foot posters advertising the ride.
“I feel like Ashton Kutcher or something,” he says, laughing.
Whether or not Matt can match the raw celebrity of a fashion model movie star, he does have more reasons than most to enjoy a ride that raised $5 million for heart disease and stroke research last year.
As previously reported in the Beach Metro News, Matt was born with two small holes and a defective valve in his heart.
Starting at just 11 days old, he needed a series of open-heart surgeries to strengthen his heart and keep blood moving to his lungs.
But at 16, Matt was lucky enough to join the first batch of patients to get a new, less invasive heart surgery through a long thin tube fed through a main artery from an incision in his leg.
“I was able to walk out of the hospital the same day,” he said.
That quick recovery meant the six-foot tall teenager didn’t have to spend any more nights cramped in a child-size bed at Sick Kids Hospital.
Today, Matt’s heart check-ups are relatively easy going. He goes in for a fitness test on a bike every two years, plus an annual check-up where doctors listen to his heart with special mics that he says sound like they are right inside his heart, Magic Schoolbus style.
“The heart stuff hasn’t really held me back from doing anything that I want to do,” he said.
In fact, Matt said the experience has likely made him a better person.
For one thing, he can relate to people who get cooped up in hospital.
“There’s really nothing to do,” he said. “It’s boring. It smells funny, there’s not really anybody to talk to, the television’s fuzzy.”
As an ambassador for the Ride for Heart, Matt spoke to a group of 17 year-olds at Sick Kids who were getting ready to move across the street to Mount Sinai—the “big boy hospital,” as his mom calls it.
After giving talks like that and handling interviews with reporters, Matt says he has also decided that he would like to one day host or produce a TV show. That idea got a boost after Matt got to speak with George Stroumboulopoulos, host of a nightly current affairs show on the CBC.
“He really just seems genuinely interested in his guests and what they’re saying,” Matt said. “He told me that if I can get into school, that’s great, but if not I should travel and see the world from everybody else’s point of view – and that’s almost a better way to gain education.”
That sort of hands-on approach has already served Matt well, not to mention the many other people at risk of heart disease and stroke that he is raising money to support. His family’s team, Matt’s Heart Beats, has already raised $2,300 this year, $875 from Matt alone.
To sponsor the team or register for the ride, visit www.rideforheart.ca. Registration is capped at 13,000 and will likely sell out, but some positions were still available as of May 10.