City warms up for 10th U.S. Transplant Games

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Though they will range in age from diaper set to octogenarian, the more than 1,400 athletes who will visit Pittsburgh July 11-16 for a national, Olympic-style competition all have one thing in common. Each has received at least one organ transplant and uses that gift of life to create awareness of the importance of organ donation through his or her athletic achievements.

Also helping to distinguish the U.S. Transplant Games from the regular Olympics are the support groups many of the athletes will bring with them. They are the living donors -- who gave the athletes bone marrow or a kidney or a part of a liver, a lung or the pancreas -- and the donor families who donated the organs of a loved one who died. They will be recognized at a Heinz Hall ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 13.

The athletes usually bring members of their own families too, building the total number of visitors the games draw to Pittsburgh to somewhere around 7,000.

The milestone 10th staging of the games in Pittsburgh was a natural, according to officials of the National Kidney Foundation, organizer of the competition.

Representatives from UPMC, the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, the National Kidney Foundation of the Alleghenies and the city got together about four years ago to talk about what it would take to host games and then sent in an application, according to Shelley Zomak, co-manager of Team Pittsburgh since 2002 and unit director of the heart-lung transplant program at UPMC Presbyterian.

It was not the only applicant.

"National Kidney Foundation looked at different cities who said they were interested," NKF spokeswoman Ellie Schlam said. "They needed venues for sports and hotels of all price ranges, as well as the support of the local community. Pittsburgh had proved to have all that, and UPMC said they'd support it. ...

"Pittsburgh and the transplant center made it a fit." She said the games are expected to bring about $7.5 million in revenue to the city, including hotel rooms, food, event services, facility rentals, vendors and suppliers.

The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC, world-renowned for its pioneering work at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute, is an official host, a primary sponsor and the provider of sports medical services.

Partner hosts are Visit Pittsburgh and the National Kidney Foundation of the Alleghenies. The main sponsor is Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.

Dr. Starzl, who operated on some of the games participants, will help carry in the games flag, as well as take part in the lighting of the torch during the opening ceremony, which will be held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center at 7:30 p.m. July 12.

A total of 47 teams will represent all 50 states, though some states are organized into regional teams, like Team Rocky Mountain with athletes from three Western states and Team Liberty comprising competitors from the metropolitan New York City area. Team Pittsburgh includes athletes from Western Pennsylvania and part of West Virginia and Team Philadelphia has competitors from the eastern part of the state.

Public spectators may buy day passes at the Games Store in the convention center for $15.

Using 14 venues including the convention center, Carnegie-Mellon, and Pitt's Petersen Center, the athletes will compete by age groups and by sex in 12 sports: golf, swimming, 3-on-3 basketball, tennis, bowling, volleyball, badminton, track and field, racquetball, cycling and table tennis. The 12th sport is a 5K walk/run on the North Shore that is open to the public; it's scheduled for 7 a.m. July 13. The public can register online (transplantgames.org; hit "get involved") or sign up at the start that morning.

Even the Pirates have gotten involved, designating their game at PNC Park July 11 as a special organ donors night. Donor information will be passed out and members of CORE will sign up people to become donors. Some transplant athletes will be recognized before the game, and on the scoreboard there will be shown a video made by actress Jamie Lee Curtis talking about donation and saluting the games participants.

Other celebrities, all of them either donor recipients or donors, also will take part in the games. They include actors Larry Hagman (liver recipient) and Ken Howard (kidney recipient); Chris Klug, an Olympic bronze medalist in snowboarding (liver recipient); and Fox News correspondent (liver donor) Catherine Herridge, who will be the emcee.

Locally, Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl have been invited to participate in the opening ceremony.

The ceremony, Ms. Schlam said, "is a sight to see. They march in as parts of teams, [and] each team has its own uniform -- shirt, logos with a lot of state pride; they carry state flags. Like Wisconsin has black and white shirts that look like cows and cheese hats. Last time, the Las Vegas team was dressed like they were going to a casino with sunglasses and the girls wore sequined miniskirts. ..." Many of the athletes also carry homemade signs or photo pins of their donors.

The athletes' teams are followed by the living donors and donor families. Some of them carry a panel of the donor family quilt, which is 2,500 squares made in memory of donors.

Then comes the games flag, a color guard followed by the National Anthem, some speeches, some "American Idol"-style entertainment and introduction of the youngest and oldest competitors, who were not yet determined because registration still was open at the time this went to press. "We've had 2-year-olds, and 85 was the oldest last time," Ms. Schlam said.

There is no parade for the closing ceremony, set for 8 p.m. July 15 at Pitt's Petersen Events Center. "But there are a lot of awards," she said. They include the naming of the best male and best female athletes and the Mickey Mantle Courage Award in memory of the New York Yankee Hall of Famer who had a liver transplant after his playing days.


Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.


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