While we are continually being told that exercise, lifestyle, and a positive outlook help us age well, they epitomise this; having received a second chance through organ donation they’re grabbing life with both hands, regardless of the date on their birth cert.
Competing at European level in any sport demands application, dedication, and determination and the participants bring this ethos into everyday living as well as to the annual event, offering hope on many levels to many people.
Significantly, the age categories in the European Transplant & Dialysis Sports Championships, now in their eighth year, are going up, largely due to people living healthier and longer post transplant, according to team manager Colin White.
“Ordinarily the highest populated section of the entire competition is 50-59, but the 60-69 age group is growing and in 2008 the European and World Federation had to add a 70-plus category because of the growing numbers transplanted and still active in sport.”
Ireland’s oldest team member is Antrim man John Mc Alteer, who is 76 and “fabulous — such a positive example to older people about a bright future”, says Colin.
“When I tell older people about the athletes, even my own parents, who are in their 60s, they say they put us to shame. They are an inspiration to their fellow participants and to Joe Public.
“The participants are all ordinary people who got affected by organ failure and who had to get up off the couch. I have watched the Irish team punch way above our weight at both European and world level, bringing a light-hearted, yet steely approach.”
Aside from the competition there are physical, social, and psychological benefits.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to socialise and have fun also. Being Irish we are gregarious, and other teams might hunt us out for the singsong. There is also the value of being part of a team — celebrating their ability, not their disability.”
The celebration of life is top of the agenda, says Limerick man John “The Bullet” Loftis, who will be 67 four days after he returns from Poland, where he hopes to win his fourth gold medal in a row for the 100m sprint and third in a row for the 200m.
How the positivity can be mutually inspiring is evident in the story of how John got his nickname: “My son Craig came to see me run in Germany in 2008 for the 100m and presented me with a t-shirt with ‘Éire’ and ‘John The Bullet’ on it. That was when I got my first gold medal and I have won every race in a row since then at European and world level.”
While the grandfather of two works hard for his medals — walking 4km daily and coaching himself regularly on the UL track — they are a much more powerful symbol; an offering of hope to others struggling with organ failure and a very public message to the Irish people that organ donation can offer new life.
“I say the equivalent of a prayer when I get a medal — it’s that I’m sharing it with someone else. I feel a huge responsibility to do the best I can — I owe that to my donor — and to let the world know that by donating, new life can be given back.”
While John will never know who his deceased donor was on September 3, 2000, when he got a new kidney, he thinks of her every day and his gratitude drives him on.
“If you’re pissed off or sad it’s a great leveller. You pick yourself up and say ‘someone died so you can live — are you going to let that get wasted?’”
Seeing each year in, is a celebration, rather than a fear of growing older: “My advice is to ignore the creaks and get on with it. Nobody who’s getting older doesn’t feel it, but don’t allow it to dominate you. A lot of what we are as humans is mental. In between your ears is your worst enemy or your best friend – you can have huge determination and strength.”
* The European Transplant & Dialysis Sports Championships are in Krakow, Poland from August 16- 23. Transplant Team Ireland comprises 25 men and nine women ranging in age from 16-76, five of whom have had liver transplants 22 kidney, one combined kidney/pancreas, one bone marrow as well as five people who are receiving dialysis treatment.