Pat Bluey will fly back to Huntington Beach this weekend decked with medals, but that's hardly the main thing on her mind.
Over the last half-decade, the 50-year-old has won gold in the shotput twice in the United States and taken the top prize for the 400-meter race in Bangkok. But for the last week in Madison, Wis., winning was the last thing on her mind — even though she left with gold medal in volleyball and the 200-meter run, a silver in shotput and a bronze in softball throw.
"When you're there, you cheer for everyone — even the last person, who you know was sick and now they're able to run 100 meters or swim the length of the pool," Bluey said.
The Surf City resident, who works as a word processing operator for a law firm, spent the last week at the U.S. Transplant Games, a national athletic competition for people who have had life-saving organ transplants. Bluey underwent an emergency liver transplant in 2003, and since then, she's represented her region for two reasons: to continue honing her athletic abilities, and to support others who have been through ordeals like hers.
In 1990, the National Kidney Foundation organized the first U.S. Transplant Games, inspired by regional events that smaller groups had held during the 1980s. The Olympics-style event takes place every two years and features 13 sports competitions for organ recipients of all ages. This year's event features a new group of contestants: For the first time, people who have donated organs get to compete as well.
Bluey, who received her liver from a deceased donor, won't get the chance to meet her benefactor. But she's eternally grateful for the team that rushed to her aid when she fell ill seven years ago.
One morning in January 2003, after a few days of feeling fatigued, Bluey looked in the mirror and found that her eyes looked jaundiced. She went to see her doctor and soon learned that her liver was barely functioning, and she needed a transplant quickly. A month later, the organ came through, and not long after, Bluey heard about the U.S. Transplant Games and vowed to participate as soon as she could.
In the meantime, Bluey has become an ambassador for OneLegacy, an organ donation nonprofit in Southern California, and even helped to decorate the group's float in the Rose Parade. Lisa Bernfeld, a spokeswoman for OneLegacy, said Bluey's energy and dedication make it hard to believe she's an organ recipient.
"That's the point of the float," Bernfeld said. "That's the point of the games. You would never know, because they're leading normal lives, for the most part."
For this year's games, Bluey signed up for multiple events: shotput, softball throw, 200- and 400-meter runs, volleyball and a relay race. She doesn't quite follow the six-day-a-week, three-hour-a-day gym regimen she did before her illness, but athletics have always been a key part of her life; to prepare for this year's games, she signed up for a beach volleyball class, threw softballs and shotputs at a local school field and routinely hit the treadmill.
After the competition ended Wednesday, Bluey said she felt sore but proud.
"It was a good soreness, knowing that I finished and I worked hard to finish the races," she said. "Just a reminder that I can finish and do my best."