TODAY, 24 IRISH athletes will board a plane bound for Durban in South Africa.
The air will be filled with a mix of emotions: excitement, nervousness, anticipation. But it will also hold a palpable sense of pride unique to these people, because they are the lucky ones: transplant recipients.
The athletes heading to the World Transplant Games will be proud of their own achievements, proud of their group bond, but proud too of the gift of life they received from some incredibly generous people.
The vast majority of those who handed them that gift – a kidney, a heart, a pancreas, a liver – were gone to another place by the time their body gave a stranger new life. But some, the living donors, will get to see the fruits of their gift in action.
The team are set to fly to Durban today for the international sporting event, after a reception attended by South African Ambassador to Ireland, HE Jeremiah Ndou.
Former Ireland international and premiership footballer Niall Quinn with the oldest Irish transplant athlete Charlie Ryan (68), and the youngest Oisin O’Gorman (12) in Dublin. Pic: Tony McLean/T. McLean Photography
The 19th World Transplant Games will take place from July 28 to August 4, and Ireland’s athletes will join hundreds of other transplant recipients to create a gathering of over 1000 athletes from 50 countries.
Ireland’s team ranges in age from 12 to 68, and includes 10 women, with the members coming from all over Ireland. They include seven living kidney transplant recipients.
Colin White, Team Manager for Transplant Team Ireland, told TheJournal.ie that “there is a huge sense of anticipation” about the games.
It’s kind of hard to put into words the atmosphere when you are at the opening ceremony, sitting surrounded by around 1000 transplant recipients from around the world and you realise all the people are here because of the generosity of someone else.
“These guys have gone up to the brink and looked over and because of a transplant they have been able to step back,” he said. “They know now to appreciate the simpler things in life.”
White emphasised that “when you get organ failure, if you get a transplant your life is not over – it’s just different”. This different life doesn’t mean that you can’t be an athlete, as these games show. “Don’t be fooled that the standard is low – the standard is very, very high,” assured White.
The games are also a way to show the donor families the role they played in the recipient’s life. “It’s highlighting that organ donation works. It’s giving somebody quality of life, not just keeping someone alive,” said White.
Team Ireland is a “great fraternity”, described White, a group bonded by shared experience and a love for sports. There have been marriages between members, and the friends are “there for each other 52 weeks a year”.
“Possibly the more beautiful thing we’ve had is members having children after transplants. Look at the gift of life they’ve received through their organ donation.”
There will be a constant focus on the medical side of things at the games, thanks to the volunteer team doctor but also the medical staff in South Africa. “We have to make sure everyone is healthy to do this,” said White, who will also be joined by a team physio.
Honouring their donor
There is a good mix of physical and skill-based sports, so even if someone is physically not so strong, there is a sport for them. There are some world record holders, but the focus is not just on the awards. White explained that for many, “the trip in itself is a huge statement to themselves, their family and the wider community”. It is a declaration of independence, of strength, and of grabbing new opportunities tightly.
“I have received the gift of life and I am going to use it,” is how White put it. Many of the participants tell him that taking part is a way of honouring their donor.
Even if the athletes win a gold medal, even if they break world records, it’s just one way of acknowledging the gift of donation. “Thank you seems such an insignificant phrase when you think of what you have received,” said White. “The medals are in some ways the icing on the cake.”
At medal ceremonies, he often sees winners, medals aloft, giving a glance skywards. It’s a nod to their donor, who, though departed, is still winning back home.
The Irish Kidney Association manages Transplant Team Ireland’s participation at the Games. If you would like to donate your organs, you can find more information right here.
Daily updates on Team Ireland can be found at www.transplantteamireland.ie