Every two years, the Transplant Games of America gathers thousands of people for a colossal celebration of life.

The event, always hosted in a different city, draws transplant recipients, living donors, donor families, individuals on the waiting list, caregivers, transplant professionals, supporters and spectators.

Fred Nelis and Chris Kowalski are no strangers to these games. They’ve competed on Team Michigan before and they’re both transplant recipients from the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.

Nelis received a heart transplant in 2014. Kowalski received a heart transplant in 2016.

Both are healthy and extremely active these days.

The two are getting another chance to showcase their athletic prowess as they compete in the Transplant Games of America, hosted in San Diego through Aug. 4.

Kowalski plans to compete in basketball, cornhole and pickleball.

Nelis will be competing in a number of swimming events. His wife, Jean, also a transplant recipient, will be competing in swimming this year, for the first time.

Nelis said he and Kowalski are among elite company at the games.

“We are a unique community,” he said. “We have not been able to compete for a few years. It will be interesting to see how my friends have fared through the pandemic, as we are all immune deficient in one way or another.”

The competitors are a band of brothers, Nelis said, and they don’t have to talk about their experiences because they’ve all been through similar situations.

“It’s a silent recognition of being around other people who have experienced similar things,” he said. “I’m always excited to see my friends again.”

At the games, it’s not always about competition, but camaraderie, he said.

“I don’t have a whole lot of endurance anymore,” he said. “I’ll do the 50 backstroke and freestyle. And 100 freestyle and possibly the 100 backstroke, too.”

His wife plans to swim in five different events.

Nelis and his wife swam at competing universities during their college days—Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University. That’s how they met.

Kowalski chose above-water competitions.

“Everybody here is a miracle,” Kowalski said. “We all went through a life-or-death trauma to get that organ that we direly needed. And what I have found is this is an amazing community.”

There are groups for many things in this world, and the transplant community is no different, Kowalski said.

More than 2,600 athletes competed in the Transplant Games in Salt Lake City in 2018. The competitors expect a big showing at this year’s games, after a four-year hiatus.

“It’s absolutely astounding,” Kowalski said. “At first glance, no one knows we have all had new hearts, kidneys, or lungs. It’s amazing to gather in the force that we do and to bring forth awareness to the world.”

Kowalski is heavily involved with Gift of Life Michigan. He regularly speaks in schools about his health journey and the importance of being a donor.

“You can help hundreds of people through skin, tissue, bone and all sorts of other donations,” he said. “I would encourage anyone to become a donor. There is so much respect for any organ donor.”

He’s one of the lucky recipients who has met his organ donor family. He connects with them regularly.

“I talk to the mom of the family regularly, maybe once a week,” he said. “We have met in person a number of times and worked together to hold an event to celebrate my donor.”

Kowalski said meeting his donor family was a great experience and an amazing thing to celebrate.

“This doesn’t happen to every recipient,” he said. “But we always want to share thanks and condolences.”

The Transplant Games are important for both donors and recipients, said Marzia Leacche, MD, Richard DeVos endowed chair for heart transplant and mechanical circulatory support and surgical director of the heart transplant program at Spectrum Health.

“The Transplant Games of America are a unique opportunity to gather transplant recipients, donor families, transplant professionals and celebrate life and organ donation,” Dr. Leacche said.

“This event can remind everyone that a transplant made possible by organ donation is not only a lifesaving operation, but these recipients may now enjoy a normal life afterwards.”