Athletes with organ transplants find hope in sport Athletes with organ transplants find hope in sport
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Athletes with organ transplants find hope in sport

    NHK World
    Correspondent
    Every two years, the World Transplant Games offer people who have received organ transplants a unique opportunity to gather and compete. When this year's event in Houston, Texas, was cancelled because of the pandemic, a virtual alternative ensured the athletes still had the chance to shine.

    The "5K AnyWay" was an online competition open to transplant recipients and donors, as well as their supporters. From May 28 to June 4, participants completed 5,000 reps or meters of a chosen discipline and shared their results online. It was organized by the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority.

    participants' photos at 5K AnyWay Website
    Participants shared videos and photos of themselves completing their activities.

    "This event is an opportunity to show everyone how people with transplants live and continue to enjoy sports," says Totsuka Hitoshi, a Japanese participant who ran five kilometers.

    Totsuka was an avid runner until he was diagnosed with kidney problems in high school. The illness — chronic renal insufficiency — not only forced him to stop running; it also made it difficult for him to work. For nearly ten years, he stayed mostly at home, unable to exert himself.

    Eventually, he got a kidney transplant from his mother. Transplants from living donors, usually family members, are common practice in Japan. Nonetheless, Totsuka felt guilty. But he went ahead with the surgery because he wanted to resume a normal life.

    After the operation, he was able to start working and preparing to run. But even as he reintegrated into public life, he felt a latent sense of social bias against him. He felt there was a belief that transplant recipients suffered from low stamina, for example.

    "I thought sports would be a good way to raise awareness about how we live," Totsuka says. "I could show people what I was still capable of after my surgery."

    The World Transplant Games gave him the perfect chance to do just that. Totsuka participated for the first time in the 2001 event, which was held in Kobe. He has taken part in almost every Games since. In 2009, he won two gold medals.

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    Totsuka Hitoshi says his favorite part of the World Transplant Games is meeting other recipients from around the world.

    Totsuka has mostly stayed home during the pandemic, but the virtual event gave kept him motivated. "People might feel a little uneasy when they meet somebody who has received a transplant," he says. "I want to show people that we are living near you and we are just like you."

    Totsuka at '5K AnyWay'
    Totsuka says he has gained some weight during the pandemic, but he enjoyed running for the event.

    Swimming for a cause

    Kimura Yuudai, another 5K AnyWay participant, is also a kidney transplant recipient.

    The 34-year-old was born with weak kidney functions and received a kidney from his father in 2017.

    Kimura and his father at hospital, 2017
    Kimura says before the surgery, he was unsure whether he deserved to live if it meant hurting his father.

    Kimura, who has loved swimming since childhood, learned about the World Transplant Games while in hospital for his surgery.

    About 18 months later, he was finally back in the pool.

    Kimura competed in the 2019 event in six disciplines — including swimming, and long jump — and took home a pair of bronze medals for the swimming.

    Kimura with two bronze medals
    Kimura won two bronze medals in swimming at the 2019 games in Newcastle, England.

    But he says that, for him, the event was more about meeting other transplant recipients from around the world and that the experience gave him new motivation.

    Kimura was disappointed when this year's Games, set to be held in Houston, Texas, were cancelled. But he thought the 5K AnyWay would be a way to fulfill his desire for competition. He completed his virtual entries over the course of six days after work and this time won a gold medal in swimming.

    "I hope my achievements can raise awareness about transplants, and give hope to other recipients and the people around them, such as family members."

    Watch Video: 03:07