NORTH FORK – She walked away with 8 gold medals in the last Transplant Games two years ago, so it’s not like the pressure is on or anything.
Jill Nolen calls that experience beginner’s luck, which she must have had since the day she was born a little more than 25 years ago, although it may not have seemed that way at the time.
Jill was only a baby when she received not one, but two liver transplants. Starting July 11, Jill joins the more than 60-member NorCal team participating in the Transplant Games of America in Houston, Texas. Go, Jill!
The 2007 Yosemite High graduate, and recent Cal State Fresno graduate, currently lives in North Fork with her parents, Judy and Mike Nolen, who will travel with her to Texas, cheering all the way.
The Transplant Games is a multi-sport event for individuals who are organ transplant recipients, living donors, bone marrow recipients, and a limited number of corneal and tissue transplant recipients.
This will be the third Transplant Games for Jill who, as an infant in 1989, was put on a waiting list for a new liver before she was six months old. Jill received a new liver but, when that failed, required a second liver transplant.
Now, the active and enthusiastic “millenial” generation member has recently celebrated more than 25 years with her liver transplant and has lived a healthy and happy life.
“There’s no better way to celebrate the Gift of Life, the gift from your donor and their families, than at the Games!” said Nolen.
Medaling events in the Transplant Games of America, which run every two years, include a 5K run, badminton, ballroom dancing, basketball, bowling, cycling, darts, golf, poker, racquetball, swimming, table tennis, tennis, track & field, trivia challenge, virtual triathlon and volleyball.
In 2012, Jill competed fiercely at the Michigan games – her second time around – leaving with a clutch of eight gold medals around her neck, won for a combination of swimming plus track & field. It wasn’t so easy though, her first time.
In 2010, she was encouraged to participate in the Transplant Games in Wisconsin, and while she was a little reluctant to take such a big step, Jill decided to “tough it out,” and see how she liked it. Turns out, it was hard!
“Before then, I didn’t talk about being a transplant recipient very much, and I didn’t really want to bring attention to it,” says the young woman who has coached gymnastics and tumbling, and played softball for years. The idea of public speaking made her stomach churn. Jill says she experienced some apprehension leading up to the events and initially had a hard time feeling comfortable.
“I was a newbie, surrounded by people I didn’t know yet, and had a hard time at first, relating to people.” It wasn’t too long before that changed.
“I started relaxing and the anxiety was easing up. I made friends and wound up feeling more confident.”
Jill came away from Wisconsin a winner for having completed her mission: to get through it. Two years later, in the 2012 Transplant Games held in Michigan, her athleticism and competitive spirit really came out to play.
“It was amazing,” she says now, referring to what she calls the healthiest week of her life. “I was with a wonderful team, with transplants from all walks of life: kidneys, livers, lungs. We bonded more, met more friends, and we stay in touch on Facebook. Most of the people are from the Bay Area.”
In addition to her medal-winning turns at swimming and track & field in Michigan, Jill competed in volleyball and basketball.
This year, in Houston, she’ll take on those events along with a brand new 5K non-competitive run, in which anyone can participate: donors, recipients, family, friends, supporters and community.
Jill and her parents, Judy and Mike, will be in Houston from July 10 through the 15th. Because Jill received her transplant so young, she’s reached an important milestone that makes her part of the “Quarter Century Club,” and organizers are planning special recognition. Jill still isn’t entirely comfortable with the hoopla surrounding her accomplishments, though she’s clearly excited about attending the Games again this year. Her parents are, too.
“My parents are coming, and they’re the ones who really went through it. I was just a baby when I had the transplants, so I don’t remember it, but they do. I really appreciate them going, and knowing they made the correct choices back then.”
Jill says going to the Houston Transplant Games is extremely rewarding. More than just an athletic event, the Transplant Games of America highlights the critical importance of organ, eye and tissue donation, while celebrating the lives of donors and recipients.
“It’s all about taking that breath, crossing that finish line,” reminds Jill, who also volunteers for a local deaf and hard-of-hearing service center; her college education gives her a strong background, together with passion, for deaf education.
On her return to North Fork, no doubt triumphant regardless of the medals she may or may not win, Jill will get ready for the Giants/Pirates game on Wednesday, July 30. She’s been invited to shag the foul balls in honor of her 25th year of life as an organ recipient.
“It’s all part of the journey. It’s about being surrounded by the right people who encourage you.”
Thanks, Jill. That’s encouraging for all of us.
Learn more about the San Francisco Bay Area TRIO: Transplant Recipients International.
About the California Transplant Donor Network
The California Transplant Donor Network saves and improves lives by facilitating organ and tissue donation for transplantation.
The California Transplant Donor Network helps 170 hospitals in 40 Northern and Central California and Northern Nevada counties. They offer the option of organ and tissue donation to families whose loved ones have died, coordinate deceased organ recovery and placement, and provide public education with the hope that every resident will become a donor.
The California Transplant Donor Network is federally designated as the region’s organ recovery organization.
About 10,000 Northern Californians are waiting for a transplant. Register now.