British Transplant Games: In the Swim

We have a friend: let’s call him Carl (well, it is his name). Carl has just won bronze in the 50m freestyle at the Swimming Gala at the British Transplant Games.  That short but intensive training paid off.

Medal winners Carl, left, with Alistair and Mike

Medal winners Carl, left, with Alistair and Mike

Cim got to know Carl when they were both in St. George’s Hospital Tooting. Carl had just had a kidney transplant, Cim was just about to. There are easier ways to make friends, but that’s what happened to us.

I’d like to think we had some hand in helping him on his way to his bronze medal. We encouraged him to take part, we listened to his worries about training and his paranoia about finishing last, and we shouted ourselves hoarse when the starter’s gun went off. You could say we were a team. And in return, Carl inspired us.

That seems to be the way things are at the Transplant Games, all over the Coventry Leisure Centre, groups of people like Carl and us from different parts of the country, representing their hospitals, swimming for gold. At least, that’s what it looks like, but really, they are representing the possibility of what life after a transplant is about.

While we were waiting for Carl, we talked to the parents of another swimmer, Ben, who won every race he entered – the Michael Phelps of the games. Luckily for Carl, he was in a different age group. Ben had played water polo for England as a young lad and was about to be picked to go to the Olympics when he got leukaemia. A bone marrow transplant saved him and once more he’s tearing up and down the lanes doing what he does best.

Finally, it came to the 50m freestyle. Carl looked like he was going to come second, but the last 10 metres seemed longer than the first 40 and he slipped to third. Anyway, he seemed to come out satisfied, jokingly threatening to blame his anaemia nurse for not giving him the iron injection that he claims would have given him the staying power to take him up a medal position.

Carl has the Games bug. He knows what he needs to do for the Bath Games in 2010.  Perhaps I’ll go in for the donor run. Maybe even Cim will do something. You want to get close to that 30 second mark? We’re here to encourage you and Ben and all those from Exeter to Glasgow. Cheering you all on. So much for the loneliness of the short-distance swimmer.

Coming soon: the meaning of poignant and what we had for dinner.

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The British Transplant Games

How do you cope with a seething mass of bodies scrambling to get through the doors into the Coventry city leisure centre? Normally, quite well? But what if you realise that 75% or more of that seething mass have had a transplant? If you are anything like me, you feel humbled.

British Transplant Games 2009 Swimmers Arrive

British Transplant Games 2009 Swimmers Arrive

Where have we been? Not on holiday, unless you count the weekend first weekend in August when we were in Coventry – well, Warwick University –  venue for the 2009 British Transplant Games. This was our first Transplant Games, and I have no doubt it will be the first in a long line that will include the World Transplant Games in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2011.

Competitors in The Games are all transplantees: from kidney, to heart, to bone marrow and everything else. It’s the only sporting event where you get banned if you’re NOT on steroids.

When it comes to the Olympic Games, does anyone really believe “it’s the taking part that counts”? The drug cheats, the vast budgets, the coca-cola-isation of the Olympian ideal have, for many, taken the shine off the medals. At the Transplant Games, that maxim is real for people; taking part means you’ve already won, and in a most cases, you’ve cheated death.

Still, there are medals to be won in swimming, cycling, and track and field. There is an adult games and there are the children’s games. There is much partying and it finishes with the Gala Dinner.

Over the next few days, we’ll bring you a taste of the whole event, from the loneliness of the short distance swimmer, to the poignancy of the under fives 20m sprint, and how you can feel normal and incredibly special at the same time.