‘Life to the fullest’: What the national championships mean to transplant recipients

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While the Federation University Road National Championships are the pinnacle of Australian racing, beyond the headlines, the event brings together a whole cycling community.

For hundreds of Aussie cyclists, it’s an annual meeting point: a chance to see old friends (and rivals), to finally catch up on that long-promised coffee ride, and to unite around a common love of cycling.

Nowhere is this social aspect more evident that the para-cycling categories, where applause is abundant, delight is genuine, and podium celebrations recognise not only physical achievement, but the support of a close-knit network of fellow riders.

In the Transplant categories, the significance of Road Nationals is steadily increasing. This year’s edition featured eight competitors, the highest level of participation since they were included in 2022.

Michelle Daley, a liver transplant recipient and board member of Transplant Australia, sat down with AusCycling during this year’s event in Ballarat to explain how the race increases the visibility of the transplant community.

“I think people have a misconception sometimes about what transplant is and what happens after it. When I had a transplant, I knew nothing about it, but in my mind, I didn’t see a fit, active person living their life to the fullest,” Daley said.

“So, when people see the value of organ donation and the longevity that can come from that, I think it can help raise their awareness about the power of it, and the importance of saying yes if they're ever in that situation.”

Michelle Daley
Michelle Daley

Daley believes that by competing in high-level sport, transplant recipients send a message to the world that they are, indeed, capable of leading full and satisfying lives.

“We're always conscious that we are ambassadors, if you like, for the cause,” Daley said.

“So, it's always an important thing to say, ‘This is what organ donation can lead to. This is what transplant can be like. Open your mind to the possibilities.’”

Daley’s comments ring true in the example of another competitor: Aaron Lee, a heart recipient from Perth.

Lee has been a competitive cyclist at junior level, but this year, he competed in the Transplant category. He spoke to AusCycling shortly after placing third in the time trial, revealing the profound impact of getting back on the bike after his operation in 2020.

“After I woke up on my hospital bed, I didn't know if I could ride again, even after the transplant. I had no idea or clue that I could,” Lee said.

“But once I knew I could and (the Transplant category) was out there, it was like, ‘Wow, it's pretty special. I can go and do what I love, and have a shot at showcasing myself and others at the highest level in Australia.’

“It's something I see as a way of hope for new recipients. They may not be into cycling, or they may find their way into cycling as a way of exercise and go, ‘Wow, I'd love to give that a go and set my goal for that,’ and get themselves physically active for it. That's what it's all about.

“I'm hoping to be at RoadNats next year and beyond, just giving it a go and encouraging more recipients … to come along, and telling them all about it and how thrilling it is to be part of it.”

Aaron LEE
Aaron Lee

Given their common bond and the small number of competitors, it’s unsurprising that Road Nationals helps to strengthen their friendships.

“There’s four of us recipients staying together: three heart transplant recipients and a bone marrow recipient,” Lee said.

“We’ve all bonded over the social media waves, and now we're here able to ride as friends and competitors. So, it's really special, actually. Better than whatever result we could get – just being together with mates.”

Growing awareness and support through sport

Daley said Transplant Australia recognises the myriad benefits of sport, not just as exercise but also to help people feel connected.

“It's very supportive. I think we're friends and community first, competitors second,” Daley said.

“(Sporting events) bring our community together around a sense of social connection and camaraderie and finding people in common. So, it's that social inclusion element that's really, really important and is just as important as the physical activity side.”

Transplant Australia is a charity that aims to improve support and community awareness for transplant recipients by acknowledging donor families, promoting physical fitness, and advocating to government.

With more than 1,800 people on the waiting list for a transplant, Daley said another key focus for the organisation is to increase the rate of consent for organ donation.

“If families are in that unfortunate position where they've got to make a decision on behalf of a family member around whether or not to donate an organ after death, we would like them to feel confident that they can say yes.”

Transplant Cyclists
2024 Women's Transplant TT podium: Michelle Daley, Kate Burton, and Tamaryn Stevens

Daley hopes to continue to grow transplant awareness and participation through multi-sport events like the Australian Transplant Games and World Transplant Games.

“I'm hoping that with a bit more of a profile of us competing, we'll get the juniors in. We want to get the young kids who really struggle sometimes with feeling different from their peers,” she said.

At the core of it, whether its competing at a national championship or just riding around the block, it seems sport will continue to be a key part of Transplant Australia’s work.

“There's nothing that makes me feel, in my mind, more normal than getting out and being as fit and active as a next person.

“Any movement is good movement. That's our motto. Every step, every minute matters. Just start. Set yourself a small goal, build up. Never doubt what you can do.

“None of us at our lowest thought we'd be able to ride 30 k’s around a mountain. It just starts with one foot in front of the other, and just doing whatever you can do within capacity. But physical activity, honestly, it's the wonder drug. There’s nothing better.”


Images: AusCycling

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