Luck, Life and the Transplant Games: An Athlete's Story
After receiving life-saving kidney transplants from his parents, UA alumnus Zachary Brooks chose to dedicate himself to the transplant movement. He is gearing up to compete in the World Transplant Games in Spain.

By Zachary Brooks, UA Office of Global Initiatives
May 23, 2017

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"We also compete knowing that donor families – families who have donated their loved ones' organs to others – have made a life-saving and a life-transforming decision that should not be forgotten," writes Zachary Brooks , who is preparing to compete in th
"We also compete knowing that donor families – families who have donated their loved ones' organs to others – have made a life-saving and a life-transforming decision that should not be forgotten," writes Zachary Brooks , who is preparing to compete in the World Transplant Games in Spain. (second from left)


June 21, 1998, was like any other Sunday.

I was living in Palo Alto, California, and I took my regular weekend trip to Santa Cruz to play soccer at the beach. But on this Sunday, I broke my toe. What I didn't know then was that a simple X-ray and blood draw later that day at the hospital would change my life.

My kidneys, the doctors found, were failing.

Over the next nine years, I would go on to receive two kidney transplants — the first from my father, Stephen, in 1999 and the second from my mother, Nancy, in 2007.

After receiving my second transplant in June 2007, I decided that I needed give back somehow, namely to my parents who saved me, and to others like me and their donors and their families. And because "thank you" to my parents falls short on so many levels, I now dedicate a portion of life each year to competing in the U.S. Transplant Games or the World Transplant Games.

For the organ transplant community, these are the Olympic Games. The World Transplant Games have taken place since 1987. More than 3,000 athletes from ages 4 to 84 from 70 member countries compete in 50 events. In last few years, the Games have been held in Argentina, South Africa, Sweden and Australia in support of organ donation.

In the U.S., 119,000 people are waiting for kidney, heart, liver, lung and tissue transplants, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. So, when I and all the other transplant athletes train and compete, we carry the hopes and dreams of many others. We compete for us, and we compete for them. We also compete knowing that donor families — families who have donated their loved ones' organs to others — have made a life-saving and a life-transforming decision that should not be forgotten. 

The dedication is a daily act.

Typically, my cycling coach picks me up at my house at 5 a.m. once weekly so I can start riding my bike by 5:40. At that time, the only light I can see in front of me is the light from my coach's car. Deer and dogs jet in front of me as I push my heart rate higher. A few hours later, I dash off to swim 2,000 meters during my lunch break or run 25 minutes on the treadmill. It's the little things that count.

When I finish work, I start my "silent" training and ride an additional 30 minutes on my stationary bike at home while monitoring my cadence, speed and distance. It is hard to hear reruns of "Seinfeld" over the din of the back wheel spinning against the roller. When I finish, I log every workout religiously. Several weeks ago, I wrote: "The wind, the heat and my tiredness meant that I had to dig my way up the hill by standing up." Tomorrow, I have another opportunity to suffer and to smile.

Even with the dedication, the logistics of planning for an international competition are daunting. About eight months before the Games, the dates of the competition, the registration fees and the schedule are announced. Shortly thereafter, I book my flight, find a room, update my passport, and figure out how to transport my bicycle and the local mechanics who can help me assemble my bike. All of it is almost too much.

But then the Games begin.

For some participants, the opening ceremony symbolizes the start of the Games. The host country organizes the opening ceremony replete with athletes wearing uniforms from their country, artistic performances and the lighting of a flame.

For me, the start of the Games occurs during the first competition, when I put on my USA jersey and I see other transplant athletes don their jerseys — Colombia, Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Japan, Iran, and on and on.

While the tendency at any competition is to stick with your friends, at the Games our happiness to connect with others "who know" breaks down barriers quickly. Because I speak Spanish and German, I tend to gravitate toward competitors from Spanish- and German-speaking countries. Others gravitate toward accents (Australian and British), while some gravitate toward the brightest uniforms (Malaysia and Sweden). One minute into my first race, I start cursing my existence and asking myself about the wisdom of making myself sick, but then I remember my parents who must have seen me much worse off, and I kick a little harder. Once the finish line greets me, my family of friends from all corners of the world embraces in having finished the race and having won at life — at least for another day.

The Games mix a sense of life's wonders with a dose of fatalism.

When another's organ is inside of you, it is impossible to take any breath for granted. So, we smile and hug with a collective consciousness and spirit that we are a part of the human race at a time when extending our lives is possible. We are aware that many died before us waiting for an organ, or died shortly after transplant in the days before doctors improved anti-rejection medications.

The Games end after the track meet. The majority of the competitors walk off the field limping, but we smile because we know that to suffer for a sport is to live. It's only in moments of great pain or joy that we notice how alive we are — and for the fleeting moments of desired permanence, the transplant athletes know both the gift of pain and joy.

In 2015, the dedication paid off as I won four medals in cycling and swimming at the World Transplant Games in Argentina, and this year I hope to return to the medals podium stronger than ever in the World Transplant Games 2017 in Málaga. The Games begin with the opening ceremony on June 25.

Once again, I will honor my parents and the countless medical professionals, and I will focus on the number 18. I am not superstitious by nature, but somehow the number 18 has shown itself to be powerful.

I was born on the 18th. Both of my transplant dates are divisible by 18. I learned that in Hebrew the number 18 means "life," and in Chinese it means "luck." And for now, I am raising funds to help pay for team registration fees, travel and accommodations, which cost about $2,700 — divisible by 18.

Zachary Brooks earned his doctorate from the UA in second language acquisition with concentrations in cognitive science and management. He completed his dissertation on bilingual decision making. While completing his doctoral studies, Brooks was elected to four terms as the Graduate and Professional Student Council's president. Originally from Denver, he has lived in four countries and seven states and picked up four languages and countless accents. He also has acted in Hollywood and worked in cryptographic business operations in Silicon Valley. He now serves as the special projects coordinator for the UA Office of Global Initiatives.

Extra info

UA alumnus Zachary Brooks is raising funds to help pay for team registration fees, travel and accommodations, which cost about $2,700. To learn more, or to donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/world-transplant-gamesdonate-now. The opening ceremony for the World Transplant Games in Málaga, Spain, will be held June 25.

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Zachary Brooks

UA Office of Global Initiatives

520-626-6404

zbrooks@email.arizona.edu