STORY and PHOTOGRAPHY: David Stringer

"Because We Can"

Walking down the ramp to Bierman Track and Field Stadium you see a mix of colorful shirts. Some are clustered by state teams, but overall there is a patchwork that blends into a whole. A group is gathered at the women's shot put, with a slightly larger group at the men's. Some young guys are tossing a softball in the infield, and about a dozen people are stretching by themselves. Another group just off one corner of the track are gathered for the awarding of medals. Several circles of girls sit on the ground talking. About 100 spectators are sprawled in the stands. At a track meet, unlike many sporting events, it's impossible to take in the whole thing.

Spectators are packed along the approach to the long jump, so much so that several have to begin their runs several times. Yellow-shirted volunteers and then the public address system clear spectators from lane 1 on the track so the walkers can make their way to the finish. When heats for the 50 and then the 100 meter dashes begin, the volunteers have to work extra hard to shoo the athletes and their families across. It appears at first to be the near chaos of a huge family picnic, but beneath the surface the organizers are moving ahead with Track and Field.

As you pick your way through the crowd to observe specific events, you can sense that some are gifted athletes. You see a young woman pull away from the pack in her heat in the 100, a picture of grace and speed. You see two men blazing side by side to the finish line in their heat, the stocky one's burst of speed matched by the the lean one's. A woman throws the shot with perfect technique, and it doesn't seem to go very far until you remember how heavy it is. She sits for a moment and then rises to gently coach a woman from another team whose technique is more suited to softball. Some of the long jumpers have that unexpected spring that propels them higher and farther, and their landing technique adds inches to their distance. Even while they are stretching or just walking around, some of the athletes radiate confidence, grace, and good health. They are comfortable in their bodies. In the Transplant Games, this is saying a lot.

Other athletes bring a different kind of grace to track and field. A sprinter trailing the field by 30 meters gets an ovation as she finishes. A very young long jumper just runs into the sand, then pauses to examine his footprints and has to be led off to make room for the next jumper. Some of the walkers are just, well, walking. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are chatting with friends as they walk, and only a few have that distinctive race-walker's wobbly stride, but all are pushing themselves to go a little bit faster: to do their best to honor their donors and themselves.

Ultimately, it does not matter what kind of athlete you are.

At age 75, Clark Beck of Team Ohio is looking forward to the next Transplant Games, either the U.S. or the World. Having finished the 1500 meter walk without a medal, he has decided to work out a bit more in preparation for the next competition. "I met a lady fiend in January," Beck says, "and I enjoy walking with her, but we don't go very fast." But he thinks this regimen got him in good enough shape to recover quickly after this event. He was looking ahead to the shot put and the softball throw.

When Beck received his kidney he was told it was a poor match. His doctor told him it would not last six months. He has now had that kidney for 31 years, 9 months.

These are his fourth Transplant Games. He first attended the '98 games in Ohio because it was near his home. "I got hooked," he says. He finds himself in the same position as many of the athletes here: looking ahead to the future.

"My dad gave me a new kidney," says 5 year old Sean Vanden Berg, "and he got my old one." Sean has just fnished the 50 meter run, and he proudly displays the blue ribbon proclaiming him "WINNER." Equally proudly, he displays the scar from the kidney he received one year ago.

When asked why he came to the games, Sean says, "because my doctor told me to."

Sean's father, Mark, has his son in his arms. "It's the greatest thing in the world," he says, "to be able to do that for my boy."

Leanna Lind, 38, competes for Team Nebraska. She has received two pancreases, the first in 1993 from a donor in Kansas with whose family she has exchanged letters. At age 26 she was the youngest pancreas recipient on record, having suffered from diabetes since she was four. Her second was in 1999 from a donor in Nebraska.

Lind is competing in the shot put, volleyball, basketball, and the long jump. While applying ice to an ankle she sprained in the latter, she explained that she would have to be a scratch from the 100 meters.

These are her sixth Transplant Games. "They are really amazing," she says. "It's just great to meet other people who have been through the same kind of thing that I've been through."

Patricia Bray's autoimmune disease struck her suddenly at age 25. She had always enjoyed good health, and before her liver transplant had never undergone any surgery. Two months elapsed between diagnosis and transplantation.

Bray, who competes for Team Florida and won a gold medal in the shot put, sees her participation in the games as an opportunity for education as well as a celebration of life. "It's also a way to honor the donors," she emphasizes, "and to thank God for the gift of life. You have this ability - now, use it."

She says that it's a very emotional thing to see athletes competing at any level. "We know what everyone has gone through."

Bray is competing in sports where she never expects to medal. She tried table tennis, but she smiles and says, "I didn't know to bring my own paddle." She also tried race walking - "It's harder than I thought!"

Her attitude reflects a spirit that is driving many athletes here and back home. It's a spirit, she says, of "I can just do this!"

Double lung recipient Kay Bauer, 34, is breathing hard after completing her preliminary heat in the 100 meter dash. Though she did not win her heat, she is delighted to be here and competing. Never able to do any sports before her transplant six years ago, she plans to run for Team Wisconsin in the 4x100 relay later in the day. This his her third Transplant Games.

Bauer comes to the Games to compete, but also to meet other people and see how well they are doing. She enjoys cheering her Wisconsin teammates on, as they obviously enjoy cheering for her.

"Lung donors are hard to find," she says, explaining that placing seriously ill or injured people on respirators can cause fluid to drain into the lungs making them unfit for transplantation. Bauer became very ill during the seven months that she was waiting for a donor. She notices that a lot of lung recipients are competing in the 100, an event that can be hard on the lungs.

"We do it," she says, "because we can."

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