STORY and PHOTOGRAPHY: David Stringer

How to Bounce Back

Cycling is one of the more colorful events at the Transplant Games.

Like track and field, it sprawls outdoors, with plenty of room for socializing and support, and the array of team shirts is supplemented by the even more colorful cycling shirts.

Details emerge: lots of tight black cycling pants, people carrying water bottles and munching bananas and nasty-looking nutrition bars, and Tour de France-like cowbells when Team Wisconsin riders approach the finish line. Groups gather together to talk, typical of most venues at the games but in this case they are straddling their bikes. One has a sign reading "New Heart" under the seat post. People work through the crowd looking for friends they met at previous games: "He's in the 20K; he's 70 years old." Serious bikers wear shoes with cleats that clink on the pavement.

Events consist of 1K time trials and 20K road races, with winners sorted into categories by gender and age. The 1K starts on a gentle downhill slope, loops around a turn, and finishes on a gentle uphill. An official helps the riders start, and a group of timers keeps track of the times, more difficult than it sounds because sometimes one cyclist passes another. Some of the contestants ride fancy racing bikes, while others ride mountain bikes or bikes with training wheels. Officials make a much-appreciated decision to award medals to the youngest cyclists before the final awards ceremony, as they notice the youngest of them drifting off to sleep in their strollers.

The 20K event consists of six laps around a gently rolling track. After waiting at the starting line for a careful process of pinning numbers on their backs, cyclists start in heats of several dozen, with women and youth (two young teen-agers) riding together. The dense groups quickly thin out into safe streams.

One of the most impressive cyclists is Tracy Copeland, competing for Team Nevada, who wins golds in both the 1K and the 20K. A dedicated cyclist, she blazes to victory in the time trial, and in the 20K she has a 10 second lead after one lap which she extends during the course of the race.

Copeland, who won two golds in 2002, modestly credits her success to the fact that her skiing, climbing and cycling had her in good physical condition prior to her 1998 liver transplant. She was ill for six weeks and lapsed into a coma, but she was only on the waiting list for two days. Six months after her transplant whe was again hiking and cycling, and after six additional months she climbed Wheeler Peak in Nevada. She and her husband ride "centuries" (100 mile rides), and they did the 129 "Death Ride" through the mountains of California, an event that includes 16,000 feet of climbing. She also gives credit to the fact that she requires very few medications - only one - and thus does not suffer from extensive side effects.

Kathy Snow, from California, was wearing a Team Nevada cycling shirt that matched Copeland's. Her son donated the liver that helped power Copeland to victory. They started writing each other six months after the transplant, and Snow and her husband drove to Reno to meet Copland and her family on the one year anniversary. They now see themselves as an extended family.

Snow has been a nurse for 31 years, and she now works as transplant coordinator.

Another medal winner is 14 year-old Trevor Leedy from Team Philadelphia, who wins a bronze in the 1K. He crosses the finish line to very loud cheers, a fact that he attributes to the enthusiasm of the many fans who are here from Philly.

This is his first year at the Transplant Games. "It's fun," he says, "especially meeting people from all the different states." (He has about fifteen pins.) He competed also in bowling and in track, where he won a silver.

Trevor received a liver in 1991 when he was only one month old. He is attending the games thanks to the sponsorship of DuPont Hospital, who makes the Transplant Games possible for kids who want to come and compete.

When asked how he felt after the race, Trevor says, "I felt proud because I finished. I also felt out of breath." He only bikes for fun around his neighborhood in New Jersey; this is his first competitive race.

Jackson McKenna, who received a liver when he was five months old, does not have much to say about his winning performance. At age 3, he pushed his bike across the finish line, training wheels and all. The crowd went crazy. Jackson himself went "a little silly" according to his father after the winner identifies himself to this reporter as "Panda Bear." He is last seen ringing the final lap bell "one last time" before his dad hauls him away.

Chris Paxton, competing for Team Mo-Kan, is a winner in more ways than one. In addition to 1K and 20K cycling, he is at the games competing in basketball, the long jump, the ball throw, the 4x400 relay, the 4x100 relay, and volleyball. In his "spare time" he designed the shirts for Team Mo-Kan and several other teams as well. The Mo-Kan shirts feature the words, "In Memory of Duane Tuttle," a heart recipient of 17 years who died suddenly in the past year.

Paxton, who celebrated his 30th birthday on Friday, received a kidney from his father in 1995 after a series of ten operations and courses of dialysis. Following the transplant he had three more operations "to fix things." Now, he said, "I'm feeling very well." These are his fourth Transplant Games, and he has won several medals.

He has been riding since his transplant. At these games he has a bike provided by a sponsor, Landis Cyclery in Arizona. The bike was custom built for him with his annivesary date on the frame. He rides 200-300 miles a week in addition to weight training. The regimen benefits his general health while helping strengthen joints softened by the medication. It also prepares him for races.

The very busy Paxton works as Art Director for a publication company and runs a designing business on the side. In addition he works part time for NKF Kansas-Western Missouri, and he oversees volunteers at a camp for kids with kidney diseases.

"It's amazing to be here," he says. "I ran into all my friends, and I am getting caught up on what's going on in their lives. Some are married, some have children. I enjoy taking part. I was given the gift of a second chance, and I want to take each day at its fullest."

Another winner is Joseph (JoJo) Lackey from Team Alabama who won the gold in the 1K in the age 2-5 bracket. JoJo is 4.

JoJo is also shy. At the awards ceremony the cheers make him turn his back on the crowd, burying his face in his mother's shoulder, so the officials have to hang the medal so it dangles down his back.

One of JoJo's teammates says that he also won a medal in bowling and would have won a third in track except he was frightened by the starting gun and leapt into his mother's arms, costing him precious seconds.

Following the awards ceremony JoJo is able to speak with the press, introducing his twin brother, Justin. He is letting Justin wear one of his medals.

JoJo received a kidney 2 years ago. He believes in sharing.

Rachel and Adam Wadina, ages 4 and 11, are present to cheer on their "Grandpa Ron" Deyolier, competing for Team Wisconsin in the 1K and 20K. They say he had a kidney transplant, but they are not sure how long ago. They report that in addition to cycling, Grandpa Ron likes to go out on the pier and shoot carp with his bow and arrow.

One mishap observed: A woman finishing the 20K raises an arm in celebration as she crosses the finish line, loses control of her bike and crashes. She is helped to her feet and walks off the course under her own power with an assortment of scrapes and bruises. A spectator comments that she will probably be biking again in a few weeks.

If there's one thing that transplant recipients know, it's how to bounce back.

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Last updated on: Friday, 05-Feb-2010 10:05:42 EST