MURRAY — Riley Nelson received a priceless gift when he was only 7 weeks old: a heart transplant.
Having a donated organ means a lifetime of medication and regular physical evaluations, Nelson said. To keep his heart healthy, he competes every other year at the Transplant Games of America.
An 18-year old bowling fan and recent graduate of Herriman High School, Nelson was one of 19 organ donation recipients and donors from Utah and Idaho who claimed the Transplant Games Cup at this year's Olympics-themed competition. Members of the team were recognized Monday at the Intermountain Medical Center Transplant Clinic in Murray, displaying the winning cup and wearing their personal medals.
The team brought home 88 medals, including 48 gold from the games in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Nelson has been attending the Transplant Games since childhood. This is his ninth time participating, which he says is an opportunity to visit with lifelong friends, travel and raise awareness about organ donation with his family at his side.
"It's basically a family trip every two years," he said.
Nelson's parents were with him at the Intermountain gathering Monday. His mother, Sherri Nelson, said the games unite families facing similar challenges.
"It's amazing to be among all those people who have gone through similar experiences. They know what you've been through," she said. "Once you go, you're kind of hooked."
Riley brought home gold and silver medals in bowling events, silvers in basketball and the 4x100 relay race, and a bronze in volleyball.
Among the group at Intermountain were some of the surgeons and physicians from the clinic's transplant center. Diana Alonso, a surgeon, said seeing the smiling athletes brings her work full circle.
"You don't always get to see (transplant recipients) years later," she said. "When I get up in the middle of the night to do a transplant, I think of these guys."
Team manager Sharon Miller said the games demonstrate the difference organ donations make in the lives of those lucky enough to receive them.
"Each of these athletes ... has faced their mortality," she said. "They have taken this gift of life and literally run with it so they can show the world that recipients of organ donation really can live a healthy and productive life."
Miller has worked with the the National Kidney Foundation of Utah for 10 years and has helped with the past four Transplant Games. Her son, a kidney recipient, competed for the first time this year.
Miller got tears in her eyes as she spoke of the athletes, living donors and families of deceased donors entering together.
"When you go to the games, you know that every athlete has a story," she said. "As they meet others, they get to know them and to know their story."
Steve Baldridge, one of the two living donors on the team, donated a kidney to a woman in his LDS ward six years ago. The donation granted her almost five more years of life. Since then, Baldridge said he has been working to raise awareness about options for living donors.
"It's very rare that a day goes by that I don't think of her," he said. "I've been trying to tell people, 'It's great that you're registered to be an organ donor when you die and it's on your driver's license, but you don't have to wait until you're dead.'"
This was Baldridge's first trip to the games, and he intends to be at the next ones.
"People would come up to me and they would see my living donor badge and they would hug me and say thank you — complete strangers," he said.
Mykel Ramsey, a 20-year-old kidney recipient from West Haven, said life after receiving a donation can be "bittersweet," but the transplant games and the living donors who attend can lift spirits. Mykel's kidney came from a deceased donor after it was determined her parents' kidneys didn't match her.
"That was hard in itself, not to have a living donor," she said. "I'm getting a kidney and I'm going to be healthy, but on the other side, they're mourning over a loved one who's not there anymore."
Meeting donor families at the games helped Ramsey heal those emotional scars.Comment on this story
"The games are just incredible," she said. "They can see you being healthy because their loved one gave an organ and we can thank them."
Ramsey won bronze in a 5K, gold in bowling, gold in tennis and bronze in volleyball.