Swimming feels more natural than walking for Stephanie Wetzel. She’d spend all her time in the water if she could.
She appreciates -- perhaps more than most -- being able to participate in a sport and compete. It makes her feel more normal, and strong. It helps her get past the idea of being “the sick kid,” or a person with limitations.
Wetzel, 37, had a kidney transplant nearly eight years ago. Less than two years later, she was swimming at the U.S. Transplant Games, an Olympic-style athletic competition held every two years for organ transplant recipients and sponsored by the National Kidney Foundation.
This year’s games are from July 31 to Aug. 3 in Madison, Wis. About 1,500 athletes are expected to compete.
Wetzel will be at the transplant games as part of Team Illinois as a nonparticipating team member. The Champaign woman is back on dialysis and awaiting a second kidney transplant, which she hopes will happen within the next few weeks.
Wetzel joined a swim team at age 13, developing her strokes and falling in love with competing. But at the end of that first summer on the swim team, she began developing the symptoms of lupus, an autoimmune disorder. She was diagnosed at age 14, and she gave up swimming until college, when she began to swim recreationally.
Her disease gradually took its toll on her kidneys. In June 2002, she began dialysis, and in November of that year she received a healthy kidney from her only sibling, older brother Doug, who lives in Normal.
During one of her doctor visits before the transplant, Wetzel saw a brochure for the transplant games. In 2004, she swam the 400-meter freestyle and 50-meter butterfly at the games, held in Minneapolis that year.
“This puts people like me on a level playing field,” Wetzel said. “We’ve been through hell, medically, some more than once. This gives us the feeling we can still be athletes. ... It gives us the feeling we can still accomplish just as much as people who are healthy and have never had to deal with these things.”
Several years after her first transplant, Wetzel began developing breathing problems. Then her kidney function started declining. She was eventually diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. By the time she was diagnosed, the kidney she received from her brother had already been damaged.
Her medical issues kept her out of the transplant games in 2006. She competed again in 2008, although she couldn’t swim. She played golf and table tennis instead. She had golfed since college, and she tried table tennis to have fun and meet new people.
That’s the thing about the transplant games. The attitude is “come as you are.”
“There are some really top-notch competitors, and there are those people who you pray will just make it to the line, and everyone gives them a standing ovation for crossing the line on the track,” Wetzel said.
Athletes must have a medical waiver from their doctors to participate, and their latest transplant must be fully functioning for at least nine months. Wetzel is medically ineligible to compete right now because she is on dialysis.
Former participants are welcome to be part of the team, though, even if they aren’t competing. Wetzel will march with Team Illinois in the opening and closing ceremonies, and then cheer on her teammates.
The event also includes living donors of organs, and donor families who have lost a loved one and donated that person’s organs or tissues. When they walk in during the opening ceremonies, Wetzel said, “It’s like a standing ovation for the next 20 minutes, for these people who have saved our lives. I think if people witnessed that, there would not be a lack of organs in our country.”
It will be the first games for Sheila and Terry Walters of Champaign. Their son, Caleb Roch, died two years ago at age 20 after he was in a motorcycle accident.
Before his death, he’d made it very clear that if anything happened to him, he wanted to be an organ donor, Terry Walters said. He and his wife, Sheila, donated their son’s corneas.
“For us, that was such a blessing, because we could take the step for our boy we wanted to take,” Terry Walters said.
Since then, they’ve been active in talking about organ and tissue donation for Donate Life Illinois. They’ve been to memorial services with donor families and recipients of donated organs, and they’re looking forward to meeting others at the games and being a cheerleader for the athletes. It’s cathartic to be with people who’ve been through the same thing, Walters said.
“You form a bond with folks, even though you’ve never met, just because of the circumstances you’ve been through,” he said.
Wetzel finds the same sort of bond with other transplant recipients. They understand what each other is going through, she said.
“The time you spend there is so emotionally charged, with excitement, the camaraderie with your teammates, the support you give each other with everything you’re going through with your health,” Wetzel said.
Wetzel is looking forward to getting a new, healthy kidney. But she hopes she gets it after the games.
“As much as I want the transplant, the games means that much to me,” she said.
Photo below: Stephanie Wetzel with her medals from the U.S. Transplant Games, at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center.