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STORY: David Stringer
PHOTOGRAPHY: Cheri Smith, Marilyn Indahl and Dave Stringer


The first thing you notice is the smell or chlorine and the humidity. Then the reverberations that blur the shouts of the cheering fans as the swimmers below churn through the bright blue of the pool toward the finish.

In one sense, swimmers at the Transplant Games are like athletes anywhere, competing with energy, form and hear. Some are focused on winning, others on the sheer pleasure of participating and competing. But a closer look at the male swimmers reminds us that these athletes are different. They are revealing the scars of their transplant surgeries.

Canadian Nick Winter, competing in the 50 backstroke and 50 freestyle, received a new liver in 1990, and he proudly showed me his "Mercedes" scar. He said he "got creamed" in Vancouver because he did not train, so he did some training before coming to London. Winter is here because he wants to be involved in the action, and he wants to encourage organ donation: "I felt I owed something to people not getting transplants."

Two South African Swimmers, Johan Keet and Margaret Rosenberg, were especially motivated to increase organ donation because of the profound social issues facing their country. South Africa suffers from high unemployment, which combines with the AIDS epidemic to create a severe shortage of funds for transplantation. Though Rosenberg received her kidney 4 1/2 years ago in a government hospital - the same one where the first heart transplant was performed - most are done in private hospitals. The two swimmers work to promote awareness for prospective donors in the newspapers and other media, and that is one reason they are attending the games. Keet received a kidney in July of 1994 and is competing in four events. Rosenberg won a silver medal in 100 meter breast stroke.

Another South African, Gerhard van Dyk, has been deeply involved in raising public awareness. He recently participated in "Cycle Across America," riding from Nashville, Tennessee, to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to call attention to the Five Points of Life. He continued his cycling success here in London, winning the gold in the 20K for veterans and the bronze in the time trials. He said he is here "celebrating life, health, and having a second chance." A teammate leaned over his shoulder and told me, "Bullsh*t - he's here to win medals."

Gunston Padayachee, another South African swimmer, also takes a very active role in raising awareness of transplantation. In addition to his kidney transplant thirteen years ago, he also suffered from cancer in 1996 (undergoing radiation and chemotherapy) and then meningitis in 2004. As a secondary school teacher, Padayachee uses his survival story to give hope and encouragement to others. He also works directly and actively with students in his school and others to raise awareness of how to prevent kidney disease and the importance of early detection. He also founded a local kidney association to raise money for underfunded hospitals to help those with kidney disease. His organization has purchased two dialysis machines as well as providing transportation for patients and support services so they can have the 24 hour nursing that hospitals can not afford. In addition to swimming, Padayachee was in London to compete in bowling, volleyball, table tennis, and the 5K walk.

Venezuelan swimmer Jose Rafael Ortiz found himself needing a kidney transplant in 1997, but he lived in a country that did not have a good transplantation program. He said of Venezuela, "For life, is good. For transplants, is not ready." He flew to Columbia and had the surgery there after only 45 days. Here he won a gold in the 50 meter backstroke and a silver in the butterfly.

For some swimmers, it's all about the competition. Hungarian Zsolt Krucso, who a year ago received a new liver, spoke with me shortly after completing his heat in the 50 meter butterfly, swimming with a cast on his wrist. He explained that he injured it two days previously while playing volleyball "for fun" with the Hungarian team at the games. He dived for a "get," bracing his hand against the ground. Krucso told me with pride that the volleyball team won the gold medal. He estimates that the cast and his inability to straighten his fingers cost him about four seconds in the race, in which he finished fourth. He was scheduled to swim in five events.

When the World Transplant Games were held in Budapest in 1999, Krucso was totally unaware of transplantation. Now that he is a personal beneficiary, however, it is a different matter.

Carlos Sanz, an athlete from Spain, has had four kidneys since 1998. He has been involved in professional sports for much of his life, working as a soccer (futbol) referee at the highest levels of the game in his country. He ran in the World Games in France in 2003, winning a gold medal in 100 meters, but hip problems have put an end to his running. He is scheduled to receive a new one in September of this year. Accompanying Sanz was Team Manager Vicente Granados, who received a kidney 18 years ago.

The swimming continued in the warm and humid pool through Wednesday and Thursday, with countless laps swum and medals won. But the winning, as every competitor here knows, goes far beyond the medals, and into the world beyond these games.

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Last updated on: Friday, 05-Feb-2010 10:11:56 EST