The 2018 Aussie Transplant Games were my favorite games I’ve experienced, even better than the world games in Malaga.
More than any other games for me, this was more about the people, than the competition, but the competition is what made the people shine.
But first, a word from our sponsor — or more accurately, a word about the whole point of the transplant games:
A snapshot of life
Everyone you meet at the games is on a journey — and each journey is different. Some of your mates show up at the games after a difficult year of illness, or personal challenges, and just making it to the starting line is an achievement.
Some of your mates, who you last saw struggling with health, shine brilliantly and have returned to form, or better: Michael’s health led to disappointment at the Malaga World Games, but last week in the Gold Coast, he performed brilliantly, looking 20 years younger as he flew around the track.
Some are new to the competition — often under a year post-transplant, and are figuring out what they’re capable of: Thor had a lung transplant just 10 months ago, and completed a tough 30k course with 100s of meters of climbing. New people look around and see examples of what’s possible — that they don’t have to sit around and fear being active; They can be healthy and better off as a result. Guillome had a permanent smile on his face on his bike and during the triathlon, soaking in his first games as his Aussie family cheered. Stephen used to look up to the veterans of the games, and now people look up to him as he dominates the athletics.
The week goes by in a whirlwind, and you can’t believe you’re hugging them goodbye at the end of the night. Having just met Terry and Anna once before at the US games in August, they now feel like family — the connection becomes so strong in such a short period of time.
Turbulence and Clarity
The games brings out emotion in all of us.
While many of us attempt to hide in plain sight in our daily lives, donning the gear of professionals, of parents, or of students, the Transplant Games is a reminder of our alter ego of ‘transplant recipient.’ We’re forced to confront the miracle of science that we’ve experienced, of our mortality, of the gratitude we should experience with every turn of the crank on a road bike, or every stroke in the pool. We feel equal parts fear of what could happen combined with shock that we’re doing okay sometimes.
By the end of the week, the events pile up and your defenses are weakened, and small, special moments are amplified. A teammate choked up during a thank you to the senior community that had cheered on our triathlon, and hand ball’d the mic to me, a dubious choice given my own inability to hold back the tears.
Add a few glasses of wine at the Gala Dinner and all bets of holding back are off, and unabashed expressions of love, a few marriage or transplant-friends-with-benefits proposals, and generally sloppiness ensue. It’s a wonderful thing. Whether we use the games to forget our daily realities or stare deeply into ourselves, the effects are profound.
Instead of staying amongst the tourists, a friend of mine invited a gang of us to share an airbnb vacation house on a canal just 10 minutes from Surfers’ Paradise (perhaps the most inaccurately named town in Australia). All the others in The House live in Melbourne so I was the odd wombat representing New South Wales, though again it’s easy to forget since I rarely wear anything representing a uniform.
The House created a petri dish + fish bowl where we not only experienced the games through our own eyes but through our housemates. Seeing their highs and lows, their frustrations, their emotions, and even their love of the poo emoticon (sigh). Most of all it was a family to come back to at the end of each day. For me, with my family on the East Coast of the US, this surrogate mob cocooned me each day and night, tolerating the grumpy version of me that would wake up each morning, and the grumpy version of me that was summoned each time we stepped through the doors of an RSL.
I don’t know when I’ll see my housemates next — that’s a strange feeling. But that feeling is also proof of how great it was to spend time surrounded by them.
Protest: Spirit of the Games
I would like to formally register my grievance for not winning the Spirit of the Games award, given to an athlete who best represents the ideals of transplant athletics. Here is my resume for this games:
- Yelled at a volunteer official for not knowing how many laps I had done in cycling (yes, I am supposed to keep track of this).
- Told some really great kids to get out of my way at one point.
- Asked a teammate to give me some space when my head was all messed up.
- Failed to wear my team uniform, except during the beach parade, and only then because my other shirts needed washing.
- Asked a woman sharing a post-race hot tub with me if she was married, with her mom (just outside the hot tub) glaring at me.
- During social hour in the Surfers’ Paradise RSL, I audibly said, “This is the most @#$% depressing place possible.”
- Squeezed out carpet-scented moisturizer from a XL sized bottle for people entering the Star casino.
I rest my case.
I’m good at maths. I know my numbers between 1 and 9 quite well. I’ve played Sudoku online and can solve most Expert puzzles in the app I use on my iPad. Well, that is apparently not enough to avoid humiliation in the Sudoku competition of the Aussie Transplant Games.
I didn’t finish a single puzzle in the time allotted. My head hurt, and I thought, “If ever there’s a time where I should flip over the table, this is it,” except that I was sharing the table with someone who was equally in the pain of those accursed puzzles.
5K Road Race
My first athletic event of the games, the order of finish was set within the first 500m of the 5K run. Dave (a teammate from The House) ran a great race, and from my position (3rd) I could watch him try and attack the young 19-year-old David, who could accelerate without effort and fend off any wily moves from the crafty Dave. I ran under 21 minutes, and I’m happy with that.
Having Bryan Williams back at the games was so great. Bryan is a heart transplant recipient who does the Rotnest Island 20k swim each year, and is such a strong swimmer. Swimming in the pool where the Commonwealth games was held was a dream — my first outdoor competition ever, and the visibility was stunning. For example, I could clearly see that coming out of my turn in the last 50 meters of the 200 free, that I had a couple of body lengths on Bryan, and then I could clearly see him 5 seconds ahead of me at the end of the race…
I met Liam at my first games, and it wouldn’t be the same without him — always pushing me to save something for the relays, and cracking a joke at every opportune moment.
Meeting new people at the games is always a top highlight — I met Bryan four years ago, and this year I met a teammate and training partner of his, Michael. I’m looking forward to seeing Michael at more games in the future.
The course for this year’s cycling event was a criterion course, but with a bigger vertical climb than I’ve ever seen on a crit course. The back side of the track featured two climbs, one a small bump followed by a much longer kicker that stole any momentum you were hoping to keep after the first punch. A course like this is made for savvy cyclists like Bruce, versus clueless triathletes like me.
Tam, the strongest woman in the field, coined the term “carnage” for the appearance of the double hill, with various cyclist pushing bikes uphill, wobbling side to side, slowly grinding to try and keep the bike moving forward, and often just collapsed on the side of the road. It’s phenomenal that heart transplant and lung transplant recipients can do this — I continue to be in awe. My housemate Suz had struggled on a casual ride just days before, but finished the brutality of 20 laps of the hill, without stopping once.
As usual, the 5K time trial made me want to vomit.
The 30k road race was much less punishing after the first few laps. While Scott was much stronger than I was, he offered not to attack and to enjoy the ride. He could have dropped me at any point, but we got to ride together, and he looked fresh on the last climbs while my legs were telling me we were close to done. Getting to ride with Scott was a special time for me — Scott and I met at Ironman Busselton, and got to run together for part of the marathon. Scott has gone on to do a lot more Ironman events, and we’re eagerly awaiting to see if he’ll get a legacy spot in Kona (Ironman World Championships) next year!
For the second time in a month, the triathlon I entered was shortened to just swimming and running due to rain conditions. So, our race became a run-swim-run (4.2k / 600 m / 4.2k), which suited my strengths but wasn’t particularly fair to others.
The swim was done in a small L-shaped pool, where we spent about 30% of the time swimming around or punching buoys and very little time cruising in the 27 C water (I told Matty, the Transplant Sports Coordinator responsible for that bathwater temperature, that with each stroke I imagined reaching out to try and choke him).
But, those minor gripes aside, this event was spectacular, because it was held in a senior community, and a huge number of residents (over 100 on the course) cheered us on. My distance involved 6 laps, so I got to see each resident 6 times. Some had encouraging rhymes, some waved flags, some built an arch for the final two runners to run through. One even told me to slow down and take it easier. Their support made the final event of my games unique among all the others, and it was the best possible way to end the competition for me.
As always, this is the least important part of the games, but here for record keeping and just so I can say, “Read the blog,” to anyone who asks, “How many medals did you win?”
- Sudoku: Dead Last.
- 5K Road Race: 3rd overall, Silver medal (2nd in age group).
- Swimming: Bronze in 400 free, Silver in 200 free, Gold in 100 free, Gold in 100 backstroke, Gold in 4x50 free relay, Silver in 4x50 medley relay (I did backstroke)
- Cycling: Silver in 5K time trial and in the 30K road race.
- Triathlon: First overall, Gold.