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Ten Years Ago at the Games
Story by Jeffrey Marx

October 5 - 8, 1990 -- Indianapolis

Never before had I been so excited about such a mediocre display of tennis. But these were the U.S. Transplant Games, not the U.S. Open. This assortment of Olympic-style competitions for transplant recipients was the first national gathering of its kind. Organized by the National Kidney Foundation, the Games drew more than four hundred recipients of life-saving transplants, mainly kidneys, hearts, and livers.
Never before had I been so excited about such a mediocre display of tennis.
Back when she was still recovering from surgery, during the worst of her hospital days, Wendy was told by one of her doctors, somewhat jokingly, that she better start training. The Transplant Games were only months away. "Very funny," Wendy whispered. "Do they have a talking competition? That's about all I'll be able to do." And even that was by no means guaranteed.
So it was absolutely thrilling to watch Wendy drop another double fault into the net, then smile. It was equally exciting to watch her lose, then laugh about it, because she was not at the Transplant Games to win. She was there to celebrate. She was there to represent and promote what the transplant community reverently calls the Gift of Life.

The Games did not draw a whole lot of coverage from the television networks, and there were plenty of empty seats in the stands. But to me this was the most meaningful sporting event I have ever attended. Never before have I felt so good about watching athletes compete. There was competition in nine sports, and in several age groups, so there were plenty of gold, silver, and bronze medals to go around. There were some great athletic achievements. But those were not the performances that kept playing in my mind. No, the feats I would always remember were those that brought equal doses of cheers and tears.

There was little Timmy Gallagher of Belmont, Massachusetts, a twelve-year-old with a new heart beating in his chest, leading most of the way in a 50-meter-dash, then falling, but still managing to flop across the finish line for third place.

There was Stephanie Fraser of Burlington, Vermont, a twenty-eight-year-old kidney recipient and winner of five medals, crossing the finish line in the 1,500 meter race-walk, hand-in-hand with another woman, co-winners on the track and in life.

There was Wayne Brinkman of Cincinnati, a liver recipient who is legally blind, collecting swimming medals, including a gold, and University of Louisville baskteball coach Denny Crum presenting the medals, all choked up, along with everybody else in the place.

Then, of course, there was Wendy. She lost to the woman who ended up winning the gold in tennis. But despite the lack of a talking competition, Wendy actually won a medal, the silver, in a 5-kilometer road race. "Pretty amazing," Carl said after watching her cross the finish line.

Soon he was reflecting on the entire experience of the Games. "So different than what I'm used to seeing and feeling," Carl said. "As professional athletes, we complain, scream, kick our feet and everything because we're tired and we hurt. We could all learn so much by watching the people out here. They're so thrilled just to be alive, let alone competing in sports. I've never seen such an incredible zest for life."

Wendy continued lobbying for a talking competition in the next Transplant Games. But I thought the best addition would be a T-shirt contest -- an event to honor the best shirts -- because there were some great ones at these inaugural Games. One said: "Organ Donors Have Their Hearts in the Right Place." Another said: "Captain Kidney." My favorite was worn by Frank Nemeth of St. Louis, a heart recipient. On the front was a diagram of a heart, in full color and great detail. On the back, it said: "Frank's Used Parts." Never before had it been so exciting to see used parts in action.

Read more in Jeffrey's book It Gets Dark Sometimes: My Sister's Fight to Live and Save Lives, at www.transplantbook.com.

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