It’s been five years since 64-year-old Fred Nelis received a new heart.

Since then, he hasn’t missed a beat when to comes to swimming.

“I was back in the pool 57 days after the transplant,” Fred said. “I think when you get a fresh start on life, you kind of kick the tires and see what you can do.”

As it turns out, he can do plenty.

Fred is no stranger to competition. He began swimming competitively in high school and kept swimming the lanes as an adult.

Since his 2014 heart transplant at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, he has raced against other transplant recipients in competitions throughout the U.S. and around the world. Most recently, he won five medals—four gold and a silver—at World Transplant Games 2019, an Olympic-style competition for post-transplant patients hosted in Newcastle, England.

Fred’s wife, Jean, is his biggest fan.

“At first I was nervous,” she admitted. “But it’s what he wants and loves to do, so I can be there. Now I’m pretty calm.”

“Now that I have a new heart, it’s a second round,” Fred said. “I’m going to try to do things to test the limits, and demonstrate to people that we’re not made of glass. We can do things.”

Another chance at life

Life didn’t always look so promising.

At 38, Fred was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which can lead to heart failure. Doctors warned him a heart transplant would be in his future, but for the next 20 years, he managed to survive with other treatments, including a left ventricular assist device that pumped blood through his body when his heart couldn’t do the job.

After nearly dying in 2014, he reluctantly agreed to be placed on the transplant list.

Roughly three months later, after a weekend of riding quad off-road vehicles, Fred received a life-changing call: A heart. A match.

The significance of the call remains forefront in his mind.

“For recipients, the agony of the loss of a complete stranger is the joy of a second chance at life,” Fred said.

As a result, he sees his own wins as a team accomplishment.

“It’s a good way to honor my donor,” he said. “Neither one of us would have been able to participate in the games without joining forces and creating a new team.”

Despite a “bewildering variety of languages” at the World Transplant Games, Fred describes a bond of kinship that exists between transplant competitors.

“Words aren’t necessary. Everyone is keenly aware of the struggles, fear, hope and the gratitude for another chance at life.”

While most heart transplant patients go on to live a full life, Fred’s accomplishments are exceptional, according to Michael Dickinson, MD, FACC, Spectrum Health medical director of heart failure programs.

“Fred is doing very well. He is determined to really fully, richly live his life, not only by going through the heart transplant and recovery, but also recovering to be an excellent athlete,” Dr. Dickinson said. “He has a really good spirit about it all.”

Although a rotator cuff injury is hampering his butterfly stroke, Fred is already training at the Holland Community Aquatic Center for upcoming transplant games in New Jersey, Ireland and Houston.

There’s no doubt he’ll be there.

“I think a transplant recipient is the eternal optimist,” he said.