Barb Breckenridge thought of herself as a pretty good bowler until kidney disease and a transplant led her to try sprinting. That was 14 years ago. Now, at age 70 and with 25 medals, she is angling for a few more during the 19th World Transplant Games next week in South Africa.
“I don’t know if I’ll medal, but it’s OK,” said Breckenridge, who will be participating in the games for people with donated organs. “I just did it to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Breckenridge, whose transplant gave her “new purpose in life” when she was 56, has sprinted in two world games and six national competitions so far. In 2006 at 63, she set a record in her age group with a 25-second finish in the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Transplant Games in Louisville, Ky.
“Once they shoot that gun to start you,” she said, “you get all this adrenaline, and you just fly.”
In Durban next week, an estimated 1,200 competitors – ages 6 to 80 and from 50 countries – will golf, play tennis, swim and run, among other activities. Also on hand will be 3,000 supporters, donor families and friends.
“It’s so exciting!” said Breckenridge, who has competed in world games in Australia and Sweden. “These games give us a chance to show the donor families how much we appreciate them.”
To promote the trip and emphasize the importance of organ donation, she donned her Team USA uniform and walked around Delaware Park on Tuesday morning.
“It’s so important for the people to sign their donor card,” said Breckenridge, who also is the Buffalo community relations director for the Northeast Kidney Foundation.
On July 31, 1999, she received a kidney from a man she knows little about – only that he was in his 40s and from the Southtowns. Her kidney failure was a symptom of lupus.
Breckenridge, a former manager at Sears, is now an advocate for people with kidney disease. Her experience with the disease has opened her heart and her mind.
“If I hadn’t gone through it,” she said, “I couldn’t do what I do now.”
For the last 16 years she has worked and volunteered in the transplant-kidney-disease-awareness community, speaking at churches and community centers.
And during the last year, she has helped with patient financial assistance and general services for some of the 1,600 Western New Yorkers on dialysis, based at the new local office of the Albany-based Northeast Kidney Foundation at 110 Broadway.
She stays in shape by getting in at least four workouts a week, at the gym and on walks.
And she does some sprints, of course.
“I try to gauge myself for what I think is 100 meters – just to make sure I can get it done,” she said.
She came to the sport gradually, starting about three years after her transplant.
In 2002, she signed up for her first transplant games. Initially, she planned to bowl on the basis of decent scores of 155 or better in the 1980s.
But while practicing, a dismaying number of bowling balls angled off into the gutter, and she pulled a thigh muscle, spent time healing in a wheelchair and got teased by friends.
“That ended my bowling career,” she said.
Later, a friend suggested sprinting, since Breckenridge was a fast walker.
The grandmother of three gave some of her first medals to her nephrologist, who put them on display at Erie County Medical Center, where she received her kidney.
Next week, in South Africa, she hopes to add to her medal collection. She has signed up to compete in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes, the 5k walk and softball distance throw.
She believes she has a shot at a prize or two.
“If I do, it’s going to be wonderful,” she said. “If I don’t, it’s going to be wonderful.”
It is competition, but it’s not the whole story.
The real point of the games, she said, is what happens when a person gets a new chance in life.