My first US Transplant Games (officially the “Transplant Games of America”)! While I’ve been to three Aussie Games and one World Games (Malaga), I had never attended the games in the states, despite living in the US for six years post-transplant.
The Spirit of the Games
While most people ask, “How did you go in the games?”, the competition and results are just a container for the people and the stories that unfold over the events and days.
In the 500 yard freestyle, we had to share a lane due to a planning mistake. My lane partner was mid-20s, a heart and liver recipient, and didn’t have a swimmer’s build, but he powered to under 8 minutes in the event, shouting “That’s my transplant!!” as he popped out of the water. My heart was beating incredibly fast — the heart beating inside him used to belong to someone else.
The second day of swimming kicked off with a 4 or 5 year old girl swimming 25 yards in wearing floaties (water wings) as she splashed towards the finish line. After lunch, a father swam the 50 free carrying his wheelchair bound son through the water with him. Emotions ran high again and again.
The final race at the track, the entire crowd cheered as runners joined a woman in her 80s who crossed the finish line for 200m dash with her walker.
At night, the team sports were fierce. As Illinois battled the NorthWest, two point guards locked horns again and again, bumping, pushing, shoving, trash talking, and glaring at the ref for well-deserved fouls. It didn’t look like a friendly game — but it was two competitors giving it everything. Twenty minutes later I saw them sitting next to each other talking and laughing.
At the pool I met David, who pulled a bunch of us who raced together and talked about how the energy of each of us pushing ourselves was the best thing in the world. He glows with energy when he talks about swimming and his love of competition. He made that day a much better day for me.
Kristen experienced a heart attack during the birth of her fourth child two and a half years ago. I have been a big fan of her husband for a long time, and he had kept me up to date on her transplant journey. I had the chance to meet her last year in Austin, but it was even better to see her, have a vegan Vietnamese dinner with the whole family, and celebrate the miracle of her recovery. She also won medals in track, cycling, and I think a few other events.
And, seeing Andrew, who lived in the dorm room next to me when I was a sophomore, and his double-lung recipient legend Isabel (who enters all the hardest events of the games and won the virtual triathlon) is always a treat.
Our Aussie team was small but mighty. Tony, who dominated the cycling in the Aussie games two years ago while on dialysis, won both gold medals in his highly competitive age group. While others piled into cars or buses at the end of the day, Tony and I cycled back into town and enjoyed some time chatting side by side as we spun out the effort from the races. Peter put himself at risk of a strained neck from all the medals he was carrying around. Irene, always with a smile and a laugh, topped the field in discus and medaled in shot. Kevin, a fixture at transplant games, is known by everyone.
And the transplant games are a hatching ground for international romance! Steve, in his special calm, cool, and collected fashion ran and jumped his way into medal after medal, and is working on getting his Wisconsin-raised girlfriend over to Australia, whom he met at the last year’s World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain. Terry, another Aussie, met Anna, from Northern California, at the Transplant Games where she was the athlete of the games, winning 7 gold medals in the pool, and she’s now residing in Oz.
While I was meeting meeting some of my teammates and competitors for the first time, it was getting to spend time with Zach, Linda, and others that was really special — not simply going through the motions of the transplant speed dating questions (what transplant? how long ago? who was your donor? you don’t sound Aussie…), but getting to share the stories of our lives and the recent challenges we’ve faced.
Since the logistics of putting on a triathlon are not easy, the games features a “virtual” triathlon, where they combine your 500 yard swim, your 20K bike ride, and your 1500m run time. While triathlon purists will protest a pool swim, a short run, and a cycling format that allows drafting, and a run distance that disadvantages runners, it’s still a great event. At Malaga last year, Zach helped me see how unique and special the virtual tri is — it requires excellence in multiple sports, and you get to compete against each other multiple times. Those of us in the competition would say it’s the hardest event of the games because it spans multiple days. And, I think we’d be right. =)
Over the week, we saw each other again and again. At the track I got to know each of the folks a little bit better. Jay from Tennessee, who won the 40–49 age group, could not be a better guy. Anthony from North Carolina kept yelling, “Hey Australia!” anytime he saw me, and we quickly established that we were the two goofballs of the lot. Jim from SoCal is the mentor on what I want to be when I’m competing in the 50+ age group. Mike, Travis, Barney, Ryan, Zach and all the guys I met and spent time with were the best part of the games for me personally.
The not-so-Great Salt Lake?
While there’s not a lot of spare time at the games if you’re competing and supporting your teammates or friends, you have to eat and navigate the city a bit. Salt Lake has a few surprisingly good Vegan food places (BoltCutter, All Chay) and a hidden hipster culture that’s only a step or two away from the over-planned sterile streets of Salt Lake’s downtown.
I can’t claim to understand Salt Lake after only spending five days there, but I can attest to being highly confused. The mixing pot of LDS (I successfully got one local to say “Mormon”), a growing homeless population, chain restaurants like PF Changs, small pubs, and a 100 other things which just didn’t seem to fit together left me without any real sense of the city’s identity. I remember my annoyed reaction to friends passing through Austin’s airport and East making conclusions about Austin, so I will only say I can’t recommend it, but that I also don’t have enough data.
The week was certainly colored by smoke from the tragic volume of California wildfires which continue to set their own records as they burn acre after acre. The beauty of the surrounding Utah mountains was obscured by smokey skies. And since the best parts of Utah are the parks, I’ll reserve my final verdict until I get to experience the parks.
The Performance of BJR at the Games
As usual, I focused on the three sports I love: swimming, cycling, and running.
In Swimming, I made lots of mistakes. I didn’t handle the “swim with a lane partner” well at all in the 500, and was easily a minute slower than what I’d expected. In the 200, I accidentally swam in the wrong heat, and didn’t get to swim against my competition, ending up in 4th place by a half second. I tried both the 50 back and 50 breast, neither of which are my strength, and proved to the world that I’m not that great at either — but had a ton of fun in both! I screwed up the start, turn, and finish in backstroke, which means only the actual stroke was half way decent. I did finally get focused and win the 100 freestyle, a tightly contested race.
In Cycling, I didn’t expect to do well, and I don’t think I performed that well, but placed well. The 5K time trial was brutal — especially because I went first, and within seconds I had people behind me drafting off of me. Not really a time trial… the 20K road race was still a staggered start, and I was still swapping my numbers from the 5K when they started rolling people out, so I rode the entire race solo, while a lot of others worked together (which is absolutely allowed). I felt like my 20K performance was the one thing in the games I am the most proud of, especially given cycling is not my strength.
Ah, Track. I haven’t run an individual track event since I was 13. I probably look just as awkward now as I did then. But I placed second in both the 1500 and 800 behind Justin, who is a champ of a guy. While I didn’t come close to my 15-year-old niece’s times in either event (I thought I might get close in the 800, but nope!), the day was heaps of fun.
In the Virtual Tri, my 500 swim time put me near the top, but my 20k bike time cost me three minutes against the overall leader, and Jay is too strong of a runner for me to make up serious ground in a 1500 run. He definitely deserved the win, and it’s really cool to race against him.
Least important stuff: 9 events, 6 medals: 2 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze
It was an incredible experience: inspiring to see the challenges that people have overcome, heartbreaking to see the challenges that people are still facing, and humbling in understanding how lucky I have been in my journey.
Feedback on the Games
This is entirely to chronicle my suggestions to the organizers. You should probably stop reading here unless you’re an athlete who competed in the games.
Sometimes transplant athletes can be jerks. Both the experienced athletes, who complain that the events aren’t organized perfectly, and new athletes who don’t have any knowledge of how difficult it is to organize the games will often take it out on the volunteers. I thought the volunteers handled it exceptionally well and I made sure several of them knew it.
Apparently Brazil protested the fact that they were not getting “international medals” (i.e. being in a separate category from all the US athletes). This is pretty weak and poor sportsmanship on their part, because it basically guarantees them a gold in any event they enter in. That’s not really the spirit of the competition, and it’s just weak.
How it should work (and how it does work in the UK and Oz) is that if an international competitor performs well enough to place in the top 3, they get the appropriate medal, and then another medal at that level is awarded to the next competitor from the host country. So the US always gets a gold, silver, and bronze, but an international competitor can medal if the have the metal.
In three cases I was awarded a gold but deserved the silver, so I swapped to get the medal I deserved, and I’m much happier.
While the rolling starts of the 500 for the virtual triathlon were not that bad, having two people in lane was not good. The mechanics of drafting in the water with no lane line between two people is not good — if you are not large bloke and you’ve got a large bloke in the lane with you, if you try and pass him, you will have to carry his weight forward as you pass. This means the size of your lane partner affects your performance. And in general it means the virtual triathletes have less of a chance of medaling given the 500 non-virtual tri competitors don’t share lanes.
Make the events either a time trial (space people out, don’t allow drafting), or a road race. In most games, the 5K is a time trial and the longer ride is a road race. Don’t do the weird hybrid combination thing where you stagger people but some based on start time bunch up and work together because you’re releasing them every 10 seconds. I think every single athlete followed the rules, but it made the event pretty strange and less appealing.
Thanks for a great Transplant Games of America, and thanks to our hosts, volunteers, and fellow competitors!