8 Things I Learned At The Borrowed Organ Olympics

Australian Transplant Games 2014

relay podiumThey come from many nations… Okay, three nations as far as I could tell (Aussies, Kiwis, Poms). They come from many states! (Well, Australia has only five states and a handful of territories). They come in all shapes and sizes (true). And they are all alive because someone gave them a gift that extended their life (that includes me).

I had considered going to the Transplant Games in the U.S., but never really had the time.

So, given that ‘top N’ lists (“17 things you never knew that your carrot peeler does while you sleep!”, “12.5 celebrity secrets to shaving an aardvark”, and so on), here are the top 8 things I learned at the Australian Transplant Games.

1. Know whether it’s a fun run or a competiton

Conor finishThe games kick off with a 5k Run open to everyone, so people from the local community can come out and show their support for organ donation. We do not require actually donations at the event.

The wind was so high that it blew down some of the race flag and event decorations, and was visibly moving runners as gusts hit the course around the lake.

About 500m from the finish, the guy in front of me looks over his shoulder, sees me, and takes off. He crossed about 5 seconds in front of me, and turns out he (Dave) was a kidney transplant recipient as well! In Newcastle most of the fast runners were not recipients. Here, it seemed like a lot of the competitors were recipients. So, so much better! And at that point I learned that a medal was at stake – now, I don’t know if I had anything in the tank to actually catch Dave, but I’m happy with the silver medal.

2. If you invite politicians to anything, they will want to read a prepared statement

After the run, the opening ceremonies began. A parade of all the recipients, who then formed an honor guard to salute the living donors at the games, and the donor families. These are the real VIPs of the games: the people who have made all of our lives possible. I thought about my cousin Diane and what she did for me in 2004 that gave me another decade of life. I still don’t completely understand the gift or how she decided to do it, but I know first hand the effect it’s had on my life.

Then, about 30 minutes of speeches, 90% of which were from politicians reading prepared statements that they didn’t write.

3. There are some serious cyclists who have organ transplants

cycling podium 30-39Monday was cycling, held at a V8 supercar track called Sandown Raceway. The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the cycling venue was “There are legit cyclists here!” It was awesome – meeting other transplant recipients who have carbon framed bikes, with race wheels, and who are clearly kick-ass riders. Pictured here are the 3 guns from the 30-39 age group.

4. I am a triathlete, not an actual cyclist

The cycling time trial course was 5K, basically a lap and 2/3rds of the race course. There was a slight hill and a slight headwind at the same point in the track. I had done some warmup laps and knew I could get above 45 kph on the straightaway, but it was going to be about maintaining speed (or at least not getting destroyed) in the rough spots. I felt great throughout the first lap, and fought through the final 2K, for a time of 9 minutes, 3 seconds, for a speed of 33 kph over the 5 k. Not exactly blinding speed, but the course did go through the windy/uphill section twice.

And I ended up with the Silver medal! At this point I was still unsure if I had medal’d in the 5K run so it was a little exciting to get a medal, though medals really aren’t the point of these games.

In the midst of the fun, the reality of why we’re doing this is all around us. Anthony, from Sydney, is on dialysis and won the 50-59 age group, in a time faster than mine. A couple of the guys have had two transplants, which reminds you that your transplant won’t last forever.

5. Breakaways look cool on TV


I’ve never been in a cycling road race in my life. My coach, knowing my general ignorance of cycling except in time trials, had clued me in: “Wait until the last 400 meters and then sprint.” Amongst the 40-49, 50-59, and 60-69 are groups, there were seven strong riders among that group, and that was the line that quickly formed. I was at the back, looking like a meerkat, realizing I had no idea what I was supposed to do. John, the largest rider in the group, was at the front, with everyone drafting behind him. At times he would surge and the rest of us would catch him.

At the end of the second lap, I realized that this could be the only road race that I ever do in my life, and that I should try a breakaway, just to be able to say I have done one. Well, now, I can say I have done one. From last place. On a flat straightaway. And that my breakaway lasted for maybe 15 seconds before the other six attached right back on to me. Yes, my first breakaway was from the worst strategic position possible, on the least desirable part of the course. Sorry, coach?

I then drug the group around the course for another lap and a half, before becoming cycling legend. Normally, the stronger riders at the front will surge, and the weaker riders get “spat out the back.” I then was “spat out the front,” where the entire group surged to the side and around me, and I missed hopping on the back… I rode the next 4+ laps solo, but crossed the line with a smile on my face. I hope someone got some footage of my amazing breakaway… Soon I think riders in Le Tour will be copying my patented move.

After I crossed the finish line, I looked around me and I didn’t want to stop. I rode three more laps before finally coming off the course. When am I going to get to race on a V8 supercar track again?

6. Getting beat by someone can be more exciting than winning

bryan and bryan swimmingI still didn’t quite understand the power of the games until the swimming events. Spending eight hours together at the aquatic center in Albert Park, I had the chance to meet and get to know so many more athletes – and the competition brings you closer together. Here, there are no rivals, just mates having a go at their best efforts.

I wasn’t sure how I’d stack up against the field, since my age group had the most athletes, and I had picked the 200m and 400m free, which I figured would feature the most fit of the lot. In the 200m, I swam a 2:56, which was about 20 seconds better than I had predicted. Bryan Williams, a heart transplant recipient, finished 6 seconds ahead of me. In the 400, I figured I would try something extreme

Bryan lives in Perth and does long distance ocean swims, like the 10k swim from Rotness island! Being an athlete with a kidney transplant is one thing – a heart transplant is another universe. I could have talked to Bryan for the next 10 hours; it’s humbling to meet someone like him, and I’m hoping I’ll get to see him when I head to Western Australia for Ironman Busselton.

All in all, I did six events and came home with five silver medals. But that’s not what I’ll remember about the games.

7. Don’t Stop Looking for Heroes

Gemma medalYou might think you stop having heroes when you stop being a kid. Well, the reverse is true – as an adult, I find the heroic more and more often in children. Jemma is eights year old and a liver transplant recipient. She won gold in both the 25m backstroke and 25m breaststroke. Her dad, Jeff, swam in the 200m free with me, and just seeing their family tells you a story of what a gift Gemma has received, and the gift that she is to her family. Having the entire family get to compete and support the games shows you the real impact of these gifts.

8. Argentina in 2015 sounds like a great idea

The World Transplant Games are in Mar De Plata, Argentina, next August. If possible, I’d love to be there.

As a note to my future self, here are the 12 events I should do there:

  1. Running: 5K
  2. Cycling: 5K time trial, Road race
  3. Swimming: 100m, 200m, 400m free. 50m, 100m backstroke. And both relays.
  4. Table Tennis
  5. Athletics: 1500 m run

The World Games also has a “triathlon”, where they add your times for the 5K run, 5k time trial, and 400m swim and take the lowest overall time to award medals. (Note I would be the gold medalist for the Aussie games in this event if it was a part of the games, but who’s counting…)

The Reality

Despite this amazing event, the bright spark it gives the athletes, underneath it all is the need to raise awareness, of how important organ donation is.

If you haven’t registered to be an organ donor, please do:

Many of the participants have lost their first transplant and are now on their second. At some point in my life, the kidney I have will start to fail, and I’ll have a hard choice ahead of me about what to do then. Until then, I’ll be finding what else I can do with a borrowed kidney.

One thought on “8 Things I Learned At The Borrowed Organ Olympics

  1. Dude, that’s a pretty awesome post. I had dumb comments to add (“#7 Warmed My Heart!”), but reading about the games just made me feel good. Glad you had a good time. Too bad you didn’t know that medals were at stake initially, but congrats on 5 “Not Quite Golds.” So cool that you still have that competitive urge at our advanced age…

    Oh yes, and it wasn’t on a bike, but remember our amazing breakaway at Stanford. Dish Dash baby…

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