Some will be celebrating medals at the Canadian Transplant Games. All will be celebrating the miracle that has allowed them to be there to compete.
From July 16-22, Calgary is hosting the Canadian Transplant Association’s sixth annual national championships, and two-time heart transplant recipient Robbie Thompson of Courtenay will be competing in swimming, cycling and perhaps badminton.
Robbie and mom Sue are flying to Calgary on Saturday morning, a much shorter trip than the last time he competed in a big event. In 2009 Robbie was in Australia for the World Transplant Games where he won a gold medal in cycling and two bronze medals in swimming.
In Calgary, Robbie will be cycling the 5km road race course on Tuesday and swimming the 50m back crawl and 50m freestyle on Thursday. If he decides to do badminton, that event goes Friday.
The Games wrap up on the 21st with a big gala, which is also the 13th anniversary of Robbie’s first heart transplant. Robbie and Sue will return home on the 22nd.
Robbie is looking forward to the Games, although he admits to “a bit more anxiety” as the event approaches. He is hoping the bike race is more competitor-friendly than it was in Australia.
“Hopefully it’s not on a 45-degree angle hill,” said Robbie. “In Australia (the race) was only a kilometre but it was 120F. degrees in a desert-like area, and half the track was uphill. It was ridiculous.” Despite that, Robbie, the youngest cyclist at the Games, won gold.
Robbie says his twice-weekly swimming training at the aquatic centre has been going well, and Sue says she is proud of her son’s achievements in the pool. “He went from not being able to do 25m and can now do 50m a couple of times. He’s really, really worked hard.”
At a recent training session, Robbie’s skills were noticed by a Special Olympics coach who said it would be great to have him on their team. As for badminton, Robbie said he has not been practising much and will keep his options open as to whether or not he’ll raise a racquet in Calgary.
Regular biking and hiking with his parents keeps Robbie’s legs strong and he does cardio – including trampoline – every day to help deal with myopathy (a muscular disease in which the muscle fibers do not function for any one of many reasons, resulting in muscular weakness) and strengthen his lungs.
All that activity has the 14-year-old in good shape. “I live a more active and healthy lifestyle than most teens my age. And I eat pretty well,” he said.
An almost straight-A student going into Grade 9 at Navigate (formerly NIDES), Robbie’s only B came in phys-ed, and the soft-spoken teen says, “I’m not much of an athletic person.”
Sue qualifies that by stating her son does not go in for team sports, but enjoys the transplant games where the playing field is more level. Competitors at the games are grouped by age, not by which transplant they’ve had.
Robbie notes that can give a kidney transplant recipient a bit of an edge over a heart transplant recipient. But Sue says, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s all about promoting organ donations. It’s just a miracle Robbie made it to his first birthday, and at 14-and-a-half he’s still going.”
Sue adds the transplant games also honour the donors. “There’s a donor ceremony at the opening ceremonies with the donor familes and donors. It’s usually the most touching part of the opening ceremonies.”
Attending his first national championships, Robbie is the only Youth (under 18) competitor on a 15-athlete B.C. contingent, and he’ll be reunited with an old friend in Calgary.
“When we were in Toronto the first time with Robbie waiting for a heart we had a family visit us whose son Dale just had a heart transplant,” Sue said. “He was on Robbie’s team with Canada in Australia. They’re coming to Calgary and we’re going to hang out with them. Dale is the same age as Robbie and they have a lot in common, although they’ll be competing against each other this time.”
Sue notes when families get together at transplant games the camaraderie is great. “The kids don’t talk about the transplants, the parents do,” she said.
Along with the competition, the games feature a big family barbecue, a trip to the Calgary zoo and an outing to Banff. “It’s nice to get together with the other families,” said Sue, adding she and Robbie are also looking forward to taking in the final two days of the Calgary Stampede.
As Robbie continues to grow (“When we went to Australia three years ago he was about my shoulder height. Now he’s three inches taller than me,” Sue notes of her 5′,5″, 125 pound son) he talks the talk as well as walks the walk about organ transplants.
Two years ago he addressed an audience of 400 doctors in Vancouver, and he has been invited to Ottawa this September to address a Canadian Blood Services event that will honour blood, tissue and organ donors.
Robbie says he enjoys these speaking engagements and feels he can capture his audience due to his first-hand experience with organ transplants. “It’s a big edge,” he said.
The Comox Valley has followed Robbie for the last 14 years, and Sue said the family is extremely grateful for all the incredible support they have received. Those who want to follow Robbie at the Canadian Transplant Games can do so on their website (www.organ-donation-works.org). And Sue reminds everyone to fill in their organ donor cards. “You can register online with the BC Transplant Society,” she said.