DONATE LIFE, ORGAN DONATION - DENVER, CO - PROFESSIONAL ROPER RIDES ON THE WINGS OF A HEART TRANSPLANT- PROMOTES ORGAN DONATION AWARENESS
Ryan Rochlitz took long, loping cowboy strides toward the stable at the National Western Complex. With one arm, he tugged the reins of a burgundy-colored pony named Dragon. He toted a looped lasso over the other.
The 30-year-old from Cheyenne looked no different than the 150 other ropers vying for spots in the National Western Stock Show, Rodeo & Horse Show, which begins Saturday.
His gear, however, includes something no one in pro rodeo has had before: another person's heart.
Rochlitz is believed to be one of only two athletes to compete professionally after a heart transplant, according to the Donor Alliance, which promotes and coordinates organ donations nationwide. The other is PGA golfer Erik Compton, who
Rochlitz counts himself lucky: Two of every 100,000 athletes between the ages of 12 and 35 die from heart ailments each year, according to a 2004 report of the International Olympic Committee.
In 1997, Rochlitz was within two weeks of dying, he said, when the call came that there was a donor's heart — taken from a Denver 23-year-old killed in a motorcycle accident.
As is his way, Rochlitz doesn't waste words.
"Shoot, I owe him my life," he said, leaving it at that.
To honor the family's wish for privacy, Rochlitz doesn't reveal his donor's name. He communicates with the family through cards and letters he sends to the Donor Alliance, which forwards them.
He asked the family to come see him in a rodeo near their home in California once, but he doesn't think they were there.
"Someday, we'll get to meet," he said. "I hope so."
The numbing diagnosis — that his heart was failing — seems like a speed bump to Rochlitz now.
In the span of a few weeks during his senior year at Burns High School, he went from star athlete to scared teenager.
He had been an all-region football player and an all-conference basketball
Then he started getting painfully exhausted during basketball practice. A few weeks later, a specialist at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver diagnosed his enlarged heart.
The transplant took place Oct. 5, 1997, and the next New Year's Day he roped in a "jackpot" competition for prize money in Fort Collins.
Rochlitz enrolled in Laramie County Community College in Wyoming, and after qualifying for the College National Finals Rodeo, he transferred to West Texas A&M, where he continued to compete before graduating and joining the Professional Rodeo Cowboys
He is trying to start a foundation, Cowboys for Life, to promote organ donation to rodeo fans, but he concedes he doesn't know how to manage a nonprofit and would like to partner with other organ-donation groups.
In Colorado and Wyoming, there are 1,965 people awaiting organ transplants, according to the Donor Alliance.
Rochlitz would like to raise money to help those in need of heart transplants.
Meanwhile, he visits hospital patients awaiting heart surgery, reassuring them the way others reassured him.
"I'm pretty much living proof," he said, "that it's not the end of the world."