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Sarah Lewis and the spirit of sportsmanship

In the summer, the University campus was the location for an extraordinary event. Hundreds of sportsmen and women, ranging in age from 2 to 80, took part in over 20 different types of competitive sports. This group leads the world, winning more gold medals than any other country – what makes them unique is that each one has received the life-saving gift of an organ transplant. Warwick Connect spoke to Sarah Lewis (PGCE 1985-86, MA Sport, Politics & Society 1996-1998) to find out more about The British Transplant Games and her involvement in this annual event.

The British Transplant Games started in 1978 with the aim of showing the benefits of organ donation and to prove that the recipient can lead a normal and active life again after transplantation. Over the last 30 years it has grown to a four day annual event held each summer at a different city in the UK.

What is involved in the planning of the Games?

‘About 18 months beforehand, the organising committee will assess the facilities that a potential host city has to offer and then try to involve the major organisations that are needed, such as the local university and council. There are over 50 teams who will compete, each based on the hospitals where transplants take place. It is these hospitals who are our key partners, being the only organisations who can contact all transplanted patients to encourage participation.

In the run up to the Games, the team managers will visit the host city to compile information packs and to recruit and train volunteers. The complex logistics of the actual event, which involves 700 participants and 1,000 supporters, is managed by a leisure company.’

How do the Transplant Games differ from other sports meetings?
‘In some respects they are very similar. We always have an opening ceremony with a torch that is received by the host city. This year, in Coventry, I took the oath on behalf of all the athletes which includes the additional words ‘in thanksgiving to our donors and their families’. The sports are always in the same order with, for example, golf on the second day, swimming on the third and athletics on the final day. The athletes receive bronze, silver and gold medals, just like the Olympics, but for different age groups.

However, where our event differs is that athletes will participate in more than one sport, competing in up to a maximum of five events. A participant might double up in racket sports, playing badminton, tennis and squash. To build up confidence of those who are new to the Games, we have more social sports, such as ten pin bowling and the Donor Run.

The majority of athletes are probably in the 30-45 age groups, but we also have toddlers in the 25m dash and the oldest participants are in their 80s, playing bowls or snooker. Some come to win medals, training well in advance, whilst others are there to do their sport at their own pace. Everyone is there to enjoy a few days of fun and sharing amongst so many who had debilitating illnesses, but who are now fit and well as a result of a successful transplant.

The overriding factor is that this is an all abilities event. Your ability is never too low to take part. The atmosphere is wonderful because although there is still rivalry amongst the competitors, they will wait for the last person to finish – it is a celebration of everyone’s success and the new life they have been fortunate to receive.’

What particular challenges do participants face?
’The main one is the psychological barrier. Having had a serious medical condition, people who have been transplanted may view themselves as ‘ill’ people. It is a big mental leap to believe that they can participate in sports. Also, for many individuals, it could be their first competitive event ever, and that first time is a major national event.’

How do you measure the success of the Games?
‘The aim of transplant sports is to visibly demonstrate the benefits of organ transplantation and to encourage more organ donors. Due to the shortage of donor organs available for transplant, as many as one in three people on the waiting list are likely to lose their lives before getting a life-saving operation. At the Games our ‘Donor Bus’ will promote the organ donor register so one measure of success is how many people sign up. At the Games our ‘Donor Bus’ will promote the organ donor register so one measure of success is how many people sign up. 25,000 joined in Sheffield last year and the organisers of this year’s event hope that the people of Coventry will be equally supportive.

The number of participants each year is another indicator. Last year and this year we have seen an increase of 15%, demonstrating improved awareness of transplant sports, along with a growing number of organ transplants, and better survival rates after transplantation.’

How does Great Britain rate in transplant sports and are the team in strong in particular sports? 
‘Great Britain leads the world in transplant sports, with our fiercest rivals being Australia and the USA. Every other year the World Transplant Games are held and we usually top the medals table. Our best sports have varied over the years, but currently they are swimming and track and field events. The latter tends to be the most popular because there are so many disciplines and, since many people may have done it at school, they are more prepared to ‘have a go’. Success has bred further success and we now have a good training regime.’

What difference has your involvement in the Games made to you personally?
‘After I was transplanted, sport was mentioned in my discharge talk. I took up running, partly to keep my weight down which was being affected by medication. The Games got me into sport in a serious way, has had a positive impact on my social life and leisure time and also influenced my choice of MA. I find it incredible that someone of my ability has been able to run on some of the greatest athletic tracks in the world.’

Sarah Lewis - fact file
Received kidney transplant
1991 First competed in British Transplant Games
1992 Became manager of the Coventry team
1995 Won first gold medal
1997 First competed in World Transplant Games, winning three bronze medals in four Games.
2009 Competitor (3,000m, 1500m, 200m and race walk) and member, organising committee, British Transplant Games in Coventry. Presented with a trophy for her contribution to raising the profile of transplants in the UK.
Sports: Track (200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m), 3,000m road race, field (shot put, long jump)
Equality and Diversity Manager, Coventry University


Listen to Sarah’s advice about getting involved in transplant sport.

For more information on the Transplant Games, visit their website. You can join the Transplant Register on their website.