“We’re going to show the world that donation enhances and saves lives. Some of us are more physically active than others, but we share one thing — we’re alive, and we’re happy about that,” Owens said.
Owens was among several athletes who have had organ or tissue transplants who gathered at the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation in Springfield to participate in a flag-signing ceremony that was part of a symbolic relay pointing to the start of the Transplant Games of America to be held Aug. 2-7 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Comparable to the ceremonial Olympic torch relay of the Olympic flame from Olympia, Greece, to the site of an Olympic Games, the transplant flag has made the rounds throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.
“We are the last stop that the flag will make. Then I return it to Transplant Games of America, and it will fly over Salt Lake City, Utah, during the games,” said Owens, an Army veteran who is a retired educator and now owns The Holiday Shop in Hillsboro.
The Transplant Games are a multi-sport festival event to promote the need for organ, eye and tissue donation, according to www.transplantgamesofamerica.org. The purpose is to show that transplantation works.
Owens, 65, received his liver transplant surgery March 6, 2011, and said it continues to be a life-altering event and “a gift from God.”
“My liver just went, and I had a lot of family, and my kids all said, ‘We’ll give you part of ours,’ and they said, ‘No. It can’t happen. It’s got to be a full-meal deal, full liver transplant,’” said Owens, whose wife is Marie and who has three children, two stepsons, three grandsons and a new granddaughter.
“I never ever thought about organ donation until I needed one. March 6, 2011, was when I got my transplant, so I’m over seven years, but if they hadn’t given it to me on March 6, I would have been dead by June 1.
“Instead of being dead on June 1, I walked back into the prison and started teaching again. For the last 18 ½ years, I was the special ed teacher at Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro.”
Organ transplant recipients, tissue recipients, living donors and donor families can participate in the Transplant Games of America.
Brad Szczecinski, board president of Team Illinois from Chicago, said around 100 team members will compete in Salt Lake City.
“Last time in Cleveland we had around 150, but overall, right now, we have about 300 active team members across the state,” said Szczecinski, who had kidney transplant surgery Nov. 14, 1996, and will play basketball, volleyball, golf, swimming events and trivia at the games.
Colette Jordan, 58, of Lisle, who received a liver transplant Nov. 1, 2006, will compete in cornhole, ping-pong, team trivia and darts at the games.
“The games have been going on since 1990, but they were led by the National Kidney Foundation, and in 2011, they pulled out and decided to go a different direction,” said Jordan, who is treasurer of Team Illinois. “Through a grassroots effort, we as individual states formed our own entities, and then we compete in a different state every other year.”
Alicemarie Siete-Nevel, 59, of Garden Prairie, who donated a kidney to her mother July 3, 1996, will compete in walk, bowling and softball throw.
“This will be my seventh games,” said Siete-Nevel, who was 37 when she donated her kidney to her mother, who was 61 at the time. Her mother died in 2007 of issues unrelated to the donation.
John Kachanuk, 52, of Havana, is a tissue recipient who will compete in sprints and the 5K at the games. Kachanuk’s back surgery Feb. 8, 2013, involved having a disk removed and insertion of two screws and plate plus two bone grafts from two separate donors.
“Before my surgery, I could walk 10 to 15 minutes, and then I had to sit down,” said Kachanuk, who is chief of the Havana Fire Department.
Owens will do eight events in five days of the Transplant Games: two bike races (5K and 20K), 5K power walk and 1,500-meter power walk, bowl, pickleball, softball throw and long jump.
“I train six days a week, every week. I’ve been training since before the games in Malaga, (Spain),” said Owens, who last summer competed in the World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain. “This November, I will have been training for two straight years.”