The West Michigan Sports Commission scheduled a press conference Tuesday morning to formally announce its organization of the Transplant Games of America, a national version of the world tournament designed to promote organ donation.
Although it is not the officially licensed U.S. Transplant Games that have been hosted by the National Kidney Foundation for the past 20 years, organizers say the event will be run in a very similar manner, following the foundation’s decision to not host the games in 2012.
Between 600 and 800 athletes are expected to participate, and teams are already forming online, said Mike Guswiler, director of the WMSC.
“This community is looking forward to share their stories and, in most cases, what it means for them to be living,” he said.
Opening ceremonies will take place July 28 and the events will run through July 31. Most or all events will be held at Grand Valley State University in Allendale Township.
Guswiler said organizers are still tweaking the final list of sports, but those being “strongly considered” are swimming, bowling, cycling, racquetball, table tennis, badminton, 3-on-3 basketball, golf, volleyball and traditional track and field events.
A 5K run that will be open to public participation will follow the opening ceremonies. The group is expecting to accommodate wheelchairs and athletes with other levels of disability, within reason, Guswiler said.
Participation eligibility will be determined by a local organizing committee that gets the final word, but “we’ll try to follow what was done in the past,” he said.
On the event’s website, eligibility is listed as open to anyone, living anywhere, who has received a life-saving transplant at least six months before the games and has received a doctor’s waiver to participate.
Between donor recipient athletes and their families attending the games, as well as families of those who donated organs, Guswiler estimated there could be an influx of 3,000 to 5,000 people into the area.
Organizers plan to work with downtown groups to set up accommodations packages in Grand Rapids because of a lack of rooms in Allendale. Guswiler conservatively estimated a $1 million in direct spending impact on the area.
There will be social events in addition to the sports designed to connect donor recipients with the families of donors. Such meet-ups are a staple of the games, Guswiler said, and one of the reasons the community was up in arms over the event’s cancellation.
“This is something the donor community really uses to promote organ donation,” he said. “It’s exciting to fulfill that need.”
In May, the NKF announced it would not hold 2012 games, which it had done every year in different U.S. cities since 1990. In 2010, they were held in Madison, Wis., and in 2008, Pittsburgh, Pa.
The foundation cited economics and a desire to re-envision the financial sustainability of the games for 2014 in its announcement, saying most Americans now view transplantation as almost routine surgery.
Guswiler said the WMSC reached out to the NKF for partnership in hosting the games in Grand Rapids but the foundation declined, choosing to keep the rights to the U.S. Transplant Games trademark.
T.J. Maciak, who got a new kidney in 1996 and has competed in the games nearly every year since, helped spearhead the push to bring them to Grand Rapids by contacting Peter Secchia, who connected him with the WMSC.
"They were pretty much on board with it as soon as they heard about it," said Maciak.
Holly Werlein, who nearly died before getting a new liver in 2006, has 11 medals from two national and two world games. She said whether you're a donor recipient or family, you "really feel like you belong."
"It's emotional. It's positive. It's heartwarming," said Werlein, who is on the local organizing committee. "I've met some of my best friends at the games."
The exact location of the opening ceremonies is still being determined. Construction on university facilities won’t be completed in time next year and Guswiler said that means Lubbers Stadium probably is out as a venue.
Registration fees will be collected, structured similar to past games. Guswiler said there probably will be a per-event fee of about $20 with the option of paying a flat $150 for participation in five sports.
Registration will likely begin after the first of the year, possibly running as late as May. Medals will be awarded to first-, second- and third-place finishers.