Malaga: First World Transplant Games

My first World Transplant games was full of surprises. You get a small taste of what it’s like to be an olympic athlete, but mostly you spend the week in awe of what people with transplants can accomplish.

This is not a short post. Buckle up.

Note: All good photos credit of someone else.

This is serious competition

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Monty leaps across the finish of the 1,500 meters, one of the most dominant performances of the games

There are some very capable athletes at the games, including a former 400m Olympic runner. The times here are often what could win local or state age group events in their respective sports.

The competition in some sports creates make-or-break moments. Small decisions or events change outcomes massively. I have teammates who trained for half a year for one specific event, to have a wrong turn in the first 30 seconds take them out of medal competition. Many events have so many participants that they are single elimination. A bad draw means you’re one and done.

There are incredible turnaround stories. My friend from college, Andrew, and his wife Isabel were there. Isabel is a double lung transplant recipient (who also won gold in several events). Same thing for Kate, an Aussie teammate, who is a heart and double lung recipient. If that doesn’t make you want to do more with your life, I don’t know what will.

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I thought I was tough doing the individual medley. Kate did it with a heart and double lung transplant.

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Josh, who has limited vision, is guided by Jerry in the 1,500 meters (at a fast clip!). Keep up, Jerry!

There are heaps of people who come to worlds who are not naturally athletic, and before transplant had never done sport of any kind. And yet, they are in the pool, on the track, on the court, on the bike. They know there’s not much of a medal chance for them, but they are there to compete, and to show the world what they can do. My biggest fear is that as the games get bigger, we lose these people – but they are the most important.

The athletes are human

Having a transplant certainly changes lives. And for the most part, I think it makes people appreciate the right things in life. But, under the pressure of competition and the emotion of physical exhaustion, we’re not perfect.

I saw great sportsmanship, with runners waiting for the other to finish. I saw the French 4×50 relay team put in a kid under 10 (he was up against me, I did beat him soundly). The entire area applauded people who were giving it everything despite not having natural athletic gifts. 1,000 examples of the spirit that the games should represent.

I also saw a few examples of anger, resentment, bickering, and poor sportsmanship, in almost all cases caused by poor officiating. When you have inexperienced volunteers running highly competitive events, you’re going to have problems.

While we should have been celebrating the great performances of the day, in cycling we spent 90 minutes waiting on bad decisions from bad officiating, poor judgement, and poor sportsmanship. It ruined the second day of the games for me. But this low spot was wiped away by the rest of the phenomenal week.

Come aboard, we’re expecting you!

I realized about a couple of days in that a good chunk of the Australian team seemed to have come to the games to play one or two sports like petanque, drink a lot, and tour a new country (versus doing lots of events all week and supporting other team members). Some team members and supporters were smoking, which shocked me. The “Fit for Life” philosophy must not have hit them, and some seemed to view the week like a cruise ship with a buffet and open bar. The gift of a second chance at life shouldn’t be squandered. Am I being judgmental? Yes.

How BJR fared

In March I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia which meant real training was out for 2-3 months. I came into the games “undercooked” with a real lack of training and never having a full month of training since January without illness:

  • The longest run I had done in 6 months was 10K.
  • The longest swim workout in the last 4 months had been about 2K.
  • I had not been on a bike outdoors more than 3 times since March.

But even with that background, I felt great during the week – but I simply wasn’t fast. That didn’t stop me from having one of the most enjoyable athletic performances of my life, second only to my Ironman races.

5K road race (run) – I expected to run about 22 minutes, about 2 minutes slower than a year ago, and with the course short by about 500m, I ran a 20:30. So, right about what I expected. 14/32.

5K cycling time trial – Wow, am I slow on the bike right now. Not a surprise given that I know exactly how much power I can produce on the bike, and at the moment it’s just enough to run a medium sized ceiling fan at medium speed (two pulls of the chain). 8:17 for 4.5K, 25/30.

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The Aussie cycling team. Five out of the eight won medals in the cycling events, which were more competitive than ever. I managed not to vomit.

30K Cycling Road race – Each year I make a new mistake. This year it was not getting close to the starting line, because the lead pack took off like a rocket in the first lap, and I could never close the gap. This one error kept me out of the medals for the virtual triathlon. I recruited seven riders to join me, which eventually dropped to three or four of us who worked together for the rest of the race, encouraging each other in Spanish and pushing harder and harder. Carlos, Ivan, y Bryan – ¡un equipo muy fuerte! 22/35.

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Carlos, Ivan, y Bryan despues del 30K. ¡Mas rapido!

400m freestyle swim – Silver medal. About 45 seconds slower than what I’m capable of when I’m fit. The pain was delicious.

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Michael Walter from the USA with the Gold in Mens’ 40-49 400m freestyle. Some chump took second.  

200m Individual Medley – This was my big fear. I hadn’t done 50m of butterfly in competition ever, and had never done the IM even all through out high school swimming. I only did my first full 50m of butterfly on the Sunday before the games started. And boy, was this race ugly for me. Goggles came off during the dive. As soon as I hit the water, my brain went into freestyle mode and I began a freestyle kick, but immediately stopped it – and froze dead in the pool, so my butterfly began with zero momentum from the dive. I tore off the goggles as I flipped to backstroke, but was already a third of a pool length behind the leaders. Every turn, except for breaststroke to freestyle, was a thing of horror. Even with all that, I managed to be only 4 seconds behind my goal time (that I had set assuming I’d be able to train and be healthy). I’m mostly proud that I took on a new challenge instead of just sticking to freestyle events where I am much more competitive. 6/7

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Aussie swim team on day 2 at the pool. Everyone smells like chlorine and victory.

4x50m relay (swim) – Rod led it off like a champ, followed by Chris and Ethan. They stuck me with the anchor leg: I would like to remind everyone that I crushed a 7 year old kid in the anchor leg. 7/10

Swim Relay team before swim

Relays are simply fun. Ethan, BJR, Chris, Rod before the race.

4x100m relay (track) – I had completely forgotten I had signed up for this and was surprised to find out the day before the race. Bradley, one of our junior team members, was running on another team that was scratched, so I had him take my place. I am not built for sprinting.

4x400m relay (track) – I just said, I am not built for sprinting! But, possibly the most childish fun I’ve had in the last six months. I ran a 1:09, maybe 1:10. Faster than my fastest time (1:12 or 1:13 I think) as a 13 year old as I discovered track was not my sport. So over the last 33 years, I am 3 seconds faster? By age 68, I should be running a 1:07. This is probably where I had the most pride in being an Aussie – we ran in the second heat of the relay, which didn’t have the dominant two teams of GBR and Hungary, and the entire Aussie section was screaming. All the way around the track I could hear my name being yelled, and the entire stands shouting. It’s an amazing feeling. I made up a little bit of ground during my leg, but it wasn’t enough (and Monty did a phenomenal job of almost catching the super friendly South African team).

4x400 Relay team on track

The glorious Aussie 4×400 relay team (and Bradley who we let the kiwis borrow even though he’s faster than a few of us).

Just so I can find it later, here’s the actual race on video.

Virtual Triathlon – (they take three events and add the times up) I placed fourth in my age group (40-49) (having put up the best swim time and I think the 2nd best run but missed the peloton finish in the 30K road race so that knocked me out of any chance here).

New Friends

Of course you meet great people, who you hope to see again in the future. And, not a single American called me a traitor during the games, in fact several seemed very understanding given the current U.S. President of why one would want to be on the Aussie team.

Zac and Bryan

Zac, a triathlete who truly should move to Australia, is a great ambassador for transplant sport, and seems to know everyone

Malaga

Don’t go. It’s not really a place I’d choose as a holiday destination, ever. There are much better places in Spain.

Gold Coast, Newcastle

The next Aussie games are in the Gold Coast in 2018, and the next World Transplant Games are in Newcastle, UK in 2019. Unless something unexpected happens, I expect to be there.

Thanks

I owe a lot to so many people.

Of course it starts with my cousin Diane, whose kidney I carried around the road race, on the bike, in the pool, on the track, and every day for the last 13 years. Without donors, these events would be empty: no athletes, no lives changed, no second chances, no miracles. No incredibly well written and insightful blog posts.

Andy Kean not only helped me get in the right direction with butterfly, and he and Kayte were so supportive through my hospitalization and recovery. Tash, Vangie, Penny, Jill, and many others also helped me through pneumonia and multiple other illnesses over the last 3 months. My Aussie teammates were inspiring and incredible people. Cheers to Matty for organizing the AIS weekend in Canberra for the team. A special thanks to KP for being my constant voice of encouragement and giving meaning to what I do. And to countless others who wished me well and have helped along the way.

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