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Transplant Games celebrate both donors and recipients
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A group of women competes in the 100-meter breaststroke during the U.S. Transplant Games in Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
About 1,500 athletes are in the Twin Cities this weekend competing for gold medals in 13 events. They're from all over the country, come from different backgrounds and include toddlers and senior citizens. But the athletes all share one common experience: They have received at least one major organ transplant. The National Kidney Foundation's U.S. Transplant Games showcase organ donation success stories. The event also honors those whose deaths gave life to others.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The five women diving Thursday into the pool in the University of Minnesota's Aquatic Center were not vying for places on the U.S. Olympic swim team.

At 40, 50 and 60 years of age, these women are a bit rounder and grayer than the muscular mermaids who normally race through these waters.

Spectators cheered as the first woman to complete the 100-meter breaststroke touched the end of the pool. At these games, the goal was not to win the race, but to finish. Even the last swimmer, 50-year-old Patricia Scott from Florida, got a big cheer.

"Well, I missed the start, and so once I started swimming I was doing okay," she said.

Scott has auto-immune hepatitis, a disease that causes her body to reject her liver. Eleven months ago, Scott received a second liver transplant.

She doesn't mind that she finished last in her heat, Scott said, and she doesn't care what her time was. She's competing in this year's U.S. Transplant Games because it's a good way to get active again.

"When I knew I wanted to get back in shape, I decided swimming would be a good activity to get back in," Scott said. "I also had cancer and chemotherapy and had neuropathy in my leg. So running, which is my original sport, is not an option. I still have to do a lot more muscle building before I can do that. So I wanted something where I can get a lot of exercise. And they always say swimming is so good for you."

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Image Sean Elliot and Andrew Cinderella

Next door to the Aquatic Center, in the Athletic Fieldhouse, former National Basketball Association player Sean Elliott conducted a clinic. He played for a season and a half in the NBA after receiving a kidney from his brother in 1999.

Elliott towered over the young kids he was tutoring on the fundamentals of dribbling and shooting a basketball.

"A lot of these kids are courageous," Elliott said. "They're out here giving it their best. They don't care if they get embarrassed, if they miss a shot or something. They've been through a lot tougher situations."

Andrew Cinderella, 14, got his liver transplant at six months of age. According to Andrew's father, Tom, he came within a week of dying before he got his liver transplant. Two weeks after the transplant, Andrew was as healthy as any other child.

"I can do athletics. I can play anything that's not a very contact sport in case of rupturing any veins and arteries," Andrew said. "So, I guess it's not too much different from any regular person."

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Image Andrew's dad

That people who receive organ donations can be as healthy and active as anyone else is one of the main messages organizers of the Transplant Games are trying to convey. They also want people to know that organ donations save lives. Andrew's father said the mother of a 14-month-old baby with a fatal head injury decided to donate her daughter's liver. That liver saved his son's life.

"That's probably the most amazing part of the whole process," Tom said. "You've probably heard it before, that somebody in their hour of grievance can find it within themselves to make that gift to somebody else and keep other people alive."

Not everyone at the games came to compete.

Dan and Mary Benter are from Manitowoc, Wis. Three years ago, their 25-year-old daughter, Tara, died after battling spinal meningitis. Three of her vital organs were donated. The Benters came to participate in memorial ceremonies and interact with other donor and recipient families.

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Image Quilt

They also came to see a large quilt that contains squares memorializing other deceased donors. The quilt square for Tara is a handmade picture of a scene from the family's lake cottage and a cutout photograph of Tara.

"I created this myself. There's over a 100,000 stitches in here. And the picture I had glued on. That was one of her favorite pictures, from the cottage, of course," Mary said. "A lot of work and a lot of memories go into these quilt squares."

"And a lot of tears shed," added Dan.

The first Transplant Games were held in 1982. This year's games end on Sunday.

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