STORY: David Stringer
PHOTOGRAPHY: David Stringer, Sarah Ause

A Different Level

It's not quite the same game I used to play in the basement against my brother.

The place has that Big Time Tournament feeling. The North Gym of the University Recreation Center features fifteen tables, or "courts," arranged in three rows. The rows are separated by snaking corrugated cardboard dividers to keep stray balls at home. The courts are amply separated to allow room for athletic moves. I don't know if anyone ever lunges far from the table to retrieve a shot. If I were playing, I'd probably need the extra room in case I stumbled.

The rules have changed since I played in my basement. Games are to 11, not 21, and serve changes after 2 rather than 5 points. A match is best of 3 games. Rules also prohibit the kind of trick serves I'd fantasized but never really attempted.

More than 160 people were competing in this tournament, grouped into men's and women's divisions and subdivided into age brackets. The youngest for men was 11-14 and for women, 11-29. The oldest was 60 and over. Each court featured a three person round-robin format, with one sitting as judge and scorekeeper for the two players.

Some of these people I think I could play with, I thought. They were lobbing the ball back and forth, trying to keep it in play without making a mistake.

I asked a woman bringing in a box of Krispy Kremes if that were a training meal for her team. She said yes.

Others I knew I did not belong in the same building with. Their blasting topspin forehands mixed with various slices and cuts were on a totally different level from the game my brother and I played. I thought of Andy Claytor from Team North Carolina (nationally ranked, works out against a robot) who I'd interviewed prior to his swimming race on Wednesday. I spoke to him briefly today, and he was upset that any of his opponents had scored on him. He reported with a smile that he came in "dead last" in his 400 freestyle event, but he was delighted to have competed and finished. He reported grabbing the wall at the end of the pool, gasping for breath and being told, "only seven more laps!"

The gym was crowded with competitors and their families, teammates and friends. I paused to speak with several of them.

Dehemerise Henry was with her older sister, Tracey. At 28, Dehemerise is recovering from a kidney transplant eight months ago. She told me she had a rough start to her recovery, and then she was back in the hospital until just a week ago. Her doctor advised her not to compete unless she recoveed her strength, and she says it's on the way back.

She came to the Transplant Games to meet people who had gone through similar situations, and to make new friends. She also came to thank the donor families, though she has not yet found her own donor family.

When I asked her how she thought she would do, she said, "I haven't played in a while, but I'm here to compete. We'll see."

Justin Cooper, here with Team Florida, is a very active 13 year old. He received a liver in 2000 at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, and he is here to compete in the bike race, the 50 meter dash, the long jump, and basketball.

Justin's illness hit him suddenly and powerfully, with only twelve days between symptoms and transplant. Even after removing and examining the diseased liver the doctors were unable to determine what was wrong.

While I was speaking with Justin, his proud father arrived to tell how he had competed at the World Games in 2003, winning a gold medal in the 5K bike race, a silver in the high jump and a bronze in the long jump. In the 2002 U.S. games in Orlando he won golds in the 50, the bike race, and the high jump. He was also able to return to his undefeated soccer team just ten weeks after his surgery, scoring his team's first and last goals of the season. Dad patted and rubbed Justin's shoulders as he spoke with me.

Kirt Harrington named his new kidney "Christine" after his primary care nurse at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. A national champion springboard diver from Michigan State University in the early 1980's, he is here to compete for Team Michigan in table tennis and volleyball.

In 1983 he was diagnosed with Alport's Syndrome, a rare genetically transmitted disease that afflicts 4-5% of all transplant recipients. He told me that the disease has taken two brothers and, recently, a cousin. He received his new kidney in 1990 following dialysis treatment that started in 1987.

Six years later, he says, things were going well and he was working out at Michigan State when his left foot suddenly went numb. A trip to Emergency revealed a blood clot in his ankle that the doctors said could have killed him. Doctors told him they could save his foot, but the the clotting could endanger his kidney. He told them to take the foot. Today he proudly displays his prosthetic foot which he has named "Smirkles" after the smiling circles that adorn it.

Harrington's lifelong love of competitive athletics brought him to the Transplant Games, but recent gall bladder surgery meant he could not compete in cycling this year. He told me he lost badly in table tennis, so now, at age 44, he might have to take up another sport.

But the real reason he comes to the games is that he loves the people, and this love is evident in his outgoing and gregarious manner. "They are all winners, all survivors."

Richard Schiff, like many of the people here in Minneapolis, is here because he enjoys the fellowship. Now 67, he received a kidney in 2000. He competed successfully in table tennis, though he did not advance to the next round. "Other major surgery slowed me up," he explains.

He and his wife Mildred, the living donor of his kidney, also returns for the inspirational meetings, especially the Living Donor Recognition. The competition is part of it, but I sense it is only a minor part.

The Schiffs told me that there is Schiff couple at the games with Team Illinois, also in their 60's, also competing in table tennis, also a husband-wife kidney donor-recipient team whose operation was also in 2000.

This kind of teamwork also takes table tennis to a different level.

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