Athlete Reflects on the Transplant Games

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Kurt Unterholzner, UW Health Organ Procurement Coordinator talks about participating in the Transplant GamesMADISON – When the national transplant games were held in 1990, it was the first time many of the transplant recipients were able to meet others like themselves.

"I hardly knew anyone else that had a transplant," commented Kurt Unterholzner, an organ procurement coordinator for UW Health and a kidney transplant recipient. "Which is why the games were such a big deal. We all got to meet each other for the first time, other people like ourselves."
A Bond All Athletes Share
The mission of the transplant games is to demonstrate the success of transplantation, honor those who have given the gift of life and call attention to the need for more organs. And according to Unterholzner, the games are about something else as well. 

"Camaraderie is so much a part of all the Transplant Games that I have attended," he said. "It is a reflection of the common experience and bond that we share. We all remember the illness, the worry, the surgery and our recovery. At times we share our experience and in doing so, we realize how common it is from athlete to athlete."

Similar to the Olympics, there are summer games and winter games, and both national and international competitions. The summer games occur nationally every other year, and internationally in the off year. This summer, the games will be held in Pittsburgh, Penn. July 11-18.

The winter games occur every other year internationally. Unterholzner just returned in March from Rovaneimi, Finland where he medaled in three competitions.

"An American had never won a medal in a Nordic ski event at the transplant games," he said, referring to the silver he won in his age group during a distance ski event. He also took home a silver medal in a three-kilometer cross country ski race, and a bronze in a three-kilometer biathlon, which combines skiing and marksmanship.

Challenging Competitors
The competition is challenging in the games, a testament to how well organ recipients can do after transplantation.

"My competitors," Unterholzner commented, "the majority of whom were Norwegian and Finnish, made me forget I was competing with other transplant recipients. It was like any other race I'd done, which says a lot about the advancements in transplants."

He should know. He's completed 16 Birkebeiner cross-country ski competitions. "The Birkie," as it is known, is a grueling 33-mile cross-country ski race between Cable and Hayward, Wis.

"They say it might be the hardest terrain in the world because it's constant up and down steep hills. It's kind of brutal," said Unterholzner. "I did the first one in 1985, three years after my transplant. And that's really what got me going. If I could do a marathon ski event on that kind of terrain, then I could do a lot of things."

A Way to Stay Active
Unterholzner credits staying fit with helping to offset the side effects of the medication he takes, which is true for many transplant recipients.

"In some ways, you have to overcome the mentality that you're sick," he commented. "It's hard to change the habit of being sedentary, but a lot of side effects can be minimized by exercise. People who are more active often do better with their transplant."

The games are one way recipients of all ages can stay focused on being active. They are designed so individuals of all skill levels, abilities and even health conditions can compete.

"At the games, what you see is a spectrum of people," noted Unterholzner. "There's people competing that have had three kidney transplants or four. There are diabetics. Or they've had broken legs or major injuries. And there's those who've been fortunate and had few issues following their transplant. Regardless of their experiences, everyone has a lot of passion and desire."

According to Unterholzner, the four-day athletic event really is a celebration of life, for recipients, for donor families and living donors. The desire to "live life to its fullest" is a common theme among participants.

He is planning on competing in the track events at the summer games in Pittsburgh and will keep going as long as he is able. "I always arrive home after the transplant games having been uplifted by the experience and with a renewed sense of purpose in life."

Date Published: 11/21/2008

News tag(s):  transplant

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