STORY and PHOTOGRAPHY: David Stringer

Great Times
The smell of chlorine, the unmistakable pool humidity, then the cheers echoing with the distinctive sound of a natatorium: it's the first day of the swimming competition.
The day's events, following a spectacular opening featuring tuxedo wearing divers, the National Anthem by trumpet, and plenty of dry ice, included the 400 freestyle and the 100 individual medley.

These two events are challenging for different reasons. It takes great endurance and an economy of technique to swim 400 yards, and the IM requires mastery of the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle. But the competitors are used to challenges.


 James A. Davis

"I'm going to get whipped today."

James A. Davis is not expecting to win the 400 free, but this does not bother him in the least. "I'm doing it for myself," he says. "I owe it to the program to compete, and to show that it does work." He pauses to dry off from his warm-up. "And I owe it to my doctor."

Davis, who at age 57 competes for Team Kentucky, received a new heart in March of 1993. The 400 freestyle will put that heart to good use.



 Tony Blaso

Tony Blaso, competing for Team Philadelphia in the 50 and 100 yard breaststroke at age 52, is quick to answer. "Three years ago I did not have the strength to pick up a glass of water to drink. Now I work construction - though I'm not supposed to." Blaso, who does excavating and asphalt paving , received a liver transplant on September 2, 2002. Today, like all the swimmers, he is here to compete, but he is mainly celebrating his reborn ability to compete.

 Cheri Jones
What do the winning athletes do with the medals they win? The answer varies, of course, but Cheri Jones, competing for Team Mo-Kan, is very clear about what she is going to do with hers. Her father, Bob O'Brian, is currently on peritoneal dialysis awaiting a kidney. She made her way up into the stands to hand him the gold medal she had just won in the 100 yard IM.

She is quick to credit her "biggest fans" - her husband Scott, her son Jack, and her daughter Julie. The gold medal winner poses with her proud family as teammates take their picture. It's clear that the support here is flowing in many directions.

When asked about her time in the event, she says, "I had a great time," and she quickly smiles at the accidental pun. Then it's back to prepare for another event.


 Patty Scott
Patty Scott, with Team Florida, has had a history of challenges. She received a liver transplant in 1998, and in the 2000 games she only felt strong enough to compete in bowling and the 5K walk. She subsequently developed spinal lymphoma, which led to a course of chemotheraphy and radiation in 2002. These treatments damaged her liver, so she received her second transplant in 2003. Now she is competing in the 400 freestyle.

Scott grew up with swimming and worked as a lifeguard, but before her transplants she had done almost all of her swimming in the ocean, but none of it was competitive. "Today," she says, "I'm wearing my first bathing cap." She looks around the pool and sees a man swimming without one. "I have short hair - maybe I can get rid of it."

She does not do flip turns, as they are not very useful swimming in the ocean. And she knows she has to control the pace of her breathing, as the excitement of the competition, she says, "has me really pumped."

She used to be a runner, but now it's swimming she relies on to keep her healthy and focused. "I'm here," she says, "because I want to be here. It's been a long seige, but now I feel good. This liver feels good." She credits the games for giving her extra incentive to get and stay healthy.

"If I win a medal," Scott says, "I'm giving it to my transplant doctor - Andreas Trakis of the University of Miami."

Indeed, she did win three medals: bronze in the 400 freestyle, silver in the 100 breaststroke, and a bronze with Team Florida in the 400 Medley relay.

In addition to competing in these games, Scott will be featured on a television special about transplantation scheduled for a December airing on A&E network.

 Ronald Coleman

Ronald Coleman ("no, not the actor," his wife smiles) is very clear about why he is at the Transplant Games. "I got nice legs. Besides, it's the only place I get to go in public in a Speedo."

Coleman, who received a liver in 1994, is new to competitive swimming. "I never did anything like this before," he says. But he's doing plenty of it now, getting up at 4 a.m. to drive over an hour to the pool at the Y, where he swims a mile every day before going to his job as a welder and pipe fitter. Some days he just does not feel like swimming, he says, "but after I swim I feel great. I swim because it makes me feel good."

This his his fourth time at the Transplant Games, having competed in 1996, 2000, and 2002, where he medaled in two events.

"I'm weak on turns, and I'm weak on speed," he says with a smile. "I'm a Jaguar in the body of a Yugo."

Watching the swimming with the Colemans is Joe Dinoia, at age 83 the oldest participant in the games, an honor he has held since his heart transplant in 1993. Dinoia recalls leaping onto the platform to upstage Larry Hagman at an Opening Ceremony several years back. He smiled but would not reveal what he had in mind for 2004.

 Carol Fitzsimmons

Carol Fitzsimmons, Team Captain for Ohio, is competing in her second U.S Transplant Games. She received a kidney four years ago at age 36, a gift from a friend and fellow teacher, Janet Patrick. Fitzsimmons developed kidney problems at age 17, and though she swam competitively in summer programs, it was always on the "B" swim team. "I never won," she shrugs and smiles. In the next few days she is competing in the 50, 100, and 400 yard freestyle and the 50 yard backstroke and a relay.

She will soon be traveling to Australia as Manager for Team USA, guests in the Australian Transplant Games.

 Abby Vannortwick

Abby Vannortwick, competing for Team Virginia, comes to the games "to see these extraordinary people compete, to celebrate the gift of life and the thrill of competition." Her gift of life was a heart she received in December of 1994. She was living in Japan when she was diagnosed with a virus that attacked her heart. She was flown by air ambulance from to Hawaii and from there to Denver. She was very fortunate to receive her heart in just two months.

Vannortwick is competing in the 50 and 100 yard freestyle and breaststroke as well as volleyball. In the fall she will attend Michigan State University, where she plans to major in zoology. She plans a career working for the environment.

 Andy Clayton

"My goal," says Andy Clayton of Team North Carolina, "is to win a gold medal in the World Games." Clayton, who has won numerous medals, gives his golds to donor families. He gives his silvers and bronzes to athletes who might not win medals in athletic competitions, "but are winners just from being here." Clayton received a liver in 1995 when, he says, he had "only five or six days to live."

Clayton has had quite a few medals to distribute, winning a gold in the 400 today and a gold in golf in 2002, among others. He will be competing in track in the 100 yard dash and the long jump. But his main love is clearly table tennis, where he is nationally ranked. As the cheers encouraged the swimmers in the pool just behind him, Clayton spoke enthusiastically about his main sport. He demonstrated the "pencil grip" he uses on the paddle, the need to "feel the ball," techniques he uses in serving, recent changes in rules and scoring, and his use of a robot on the end of the table against which he can practice before a major competition. It's hard to believe his versitility in so many different sports.

Clayton's success, like the successes of most athletes at the Transplant Games, is placed in perspective by the medical challenges they have faced. "It's a blessing for me to wake up in the morning," he says. "The Good Lord has something great for me to do."

The Transplant Games carry benefits for Clayton beyond the few days of competition. He frequently sees people he meets at the games on his travels around the United States, and in the 2003 World Games in France, he was able to tour Southern France with the family of some people he'd met through the games.

"We're all family," he says, echoing a feeling evident in the smiles and hugs everywhere. took when he was younger -- but he's amazing because of his attitude and because he's a pioneer.

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