GB’s Transplant Swimmers Rule the Waves Down Under

When the last World Transplant Games hosted on home soil in Newcastle-Gateshead drew to a close in August 2019, few of those present would have been expecting to wait a further four years for the next opportunity to compete. But with the intervening global pandemic forcing transplant recipients into ‘shielding’ due their immuno-suppressed status, it took until April this year for the next edition to take place, this time in Perth, Western Australia. The delay though did little to dampen down British success.

The two-day event saw the 20 strong  Great Britain and Northern Ireland team amass 31 gold, 21 silver and 10 bronze medals. The squad, ranging in age from 14 – 68 year and including 10 first timers to world level competition, also captured 15 Transplant World Records with 13 individual records and a further pair in the relays.

The traditional dominance of GB&NI in the pool was not to be taken for granted however. The level of competition continued to build on that of previous years with some fantastic racing that saw records tumble twice in some events between heats and finals, and a number of notable performances from the chasing pack. 

Canada’s Grey Brett (40-49) achieved 5 WR’s including a time of 2.26.42 in his 200 IM, shaving 3.5 seconds off his own previous record. The USA’s Abigail Beckman-Green also notched 5 WR’s in the 30-39 category with the stand-out performance coming in the 50M Freestyle where she and second placed Jillian Best from Canada both broke the existing record in the heats and again in the final with a winning time of 28.88.

For the GB team, ladies Captain Jodie Cox moved into the 40-49 age group for this competition, and she made her mark with 5 individual World Record times and 2 more team World Records in the 4×50 relays. The liver transplant recipient who swims with Portsmouth Northsea SC, was joined by her club mate Nicole Mackenzie in the relays alongside Caroline Rutherford. Two juniors completed the quartets with 15-year-old Ava Taylor making up a 4×50 Freestyle team that took 3.5 seconds off a world record which had stood since 2013. Meanwhile, Cerys O’Connell was the final member of the medley relay, the 14 year old swimming the backstroke leg as the team broke their own world record from 2019. The GB&NI ladies ‘B’ team also took Silver in both relays with Australia in Bronze.

Britain’s relay medallists celebrate on the podium with their Australian competitors.

Perth also saw Caroline Rutherford competing in her first World Transplant Games . She had reached national level in swimming and was an international kayaker before being diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (heart failure and disease) at the age of 20, which at the time ended her sporting dreams. Alongside her 2 relay Golds, the heart transplant recipient posted 2 World Records in the 50 and 100M backstroke, 2 Silvers in the 50M Butterfly and 100M Freestyle and a Bronze in the 50M Free. The 36-year-old was keen to highlight the camaraderie of her team – “The professionalism and kindness of the GB&NI swim team helped me swim faster than I ever thought possible after my heart transplant. Transplants work!”

Northern Irish swimmer Kathryn Glover showed her talent across multiple disciplines, Kathryn stormed to gold in the highly competitive final for the 40-49 age group 50 breaststroke, and also picked up two silvers during two full-on days at the pool. Not content with that she competed in the first ever triathlon at the World Transplant Games, finishing 4th. 

The depth of female talent across the age groups saw more GB medals and records as the event progressed. Kidney recipient Nicole Mackenzie broke 2 of her own individual World Records on her way to 7 Gold medals while Karen Rockell, a liver transplant recipient from Northampton, took 3 Golds in the 60-69 age group with wins in the 100m Freestyle, 50M Backstroke and 50m Breaststroke and a further Silver and Bronze also added to her collection.

Speaking after the competition she was keen to highlight the importance of the transplant games – “They give inspiration to people recovering from transplants across the world and it encourages patients to get fit again after major surgery. The Games also give us the opportunity to celebrate life, give thanks to our donors and their families, and provides a platform to talk about the importance of organ donation”.

Welsh junior swimmer and bone marrow recipient, Cerys O’Connell  was awarded an Outstanding Junior Athlete award of the Games after clinching 5 individual Golds alongside a relay Gold and Silver, and clearly relished the international competition. “The whole team was very supportive and made me feel welcome. It was lovely to meet so many people from around the world.”

GB Men’s Captain Dave Fisher said he had been “immensely proud” of the team’s performance at a competition which was now one of his best sporting moments. The kidney recipient previously came 4th at Judo Nationals and trained with the GB judo team before his transplant. “The whole team of both men and women were truly amazing and swam brilliantly throughout the meet.”

Dresden, Germany has been announced as venue for the next World Transplant Games and no doubt, the bar will be raised again, but Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be ready and will once again look to build on their success.

You can find out more about transplant swimming and hear from many of this year’s team on our podcast special. All of the swimmers featured have had a second chance at life thanks to the generosity of their donors. Please think about registering as an organ donor and if you do decide it is for you, make sure your family understand your wishes. For more information visit the NHS Organ Donor Website.