Irish champ living for the moment

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 6:50 AM ET

Whether she's up against the pin or in the water tomorrow -- no matter what happens in her golf game -- Marie O'Connor will look heavenward and give thanks.

The goal is secondary to the journey for the 44-year-old Irish bartender, an athlete who is fairly representative of the 1,600 competitors in the World Transplant Games. It has been a voyage for each of them.

All are competing with a donated body part. All are grateful beyond the understanding of others. All, it is safe to say, regard life more deeply and vividly than before their lives were preserved through a donor organ.

O'Connor, variously effervescent, humorous, grave and inciteful, speaks for her 25 Irish teammates and athletes from the other 45 nations who have received renewed life.

"You stop and appreciate the simple things in life," she said at Western's UCC building. "On the beach, during a walk -- I get up in the morning, sometimes at six, and I go down on the concourse; there's only myself -- and I could be in any part of the world walking along and hearing the birds singing.

"Ah, it's beautiful."

Winner of the squash gold medal Monday, she remembers her pre-sickness self in a bemused way.

"It was all about 'I'm going to buy myself this and get myself that for next year' and I now ask 'where is next year?' Live for the moment, not even the day. People have forgotten how to live. One thing you cannot change is that clock going 'round. Things you used to think were big become small."

Back in the late 1970s, O'Connor signed an organ donor card. Little did she know she would become a recipient.

A virus that led to a throat infection wound up attacking her kidneys virtually overnight in 1990 and suddenly she was a transplant candidate. After an onerous run of dialysis, she received a donor kidney in 1996.

It didn't take. She received another two years later and after a tenuous week and a half, it began to function properly.

O'Connor has no idea who the donor was, but looks skyward with a soft thank you. She wrote a note to be passed on to the donor's family.

One of the hardest things for her to accept initially was the complete end of her favourite sports, camogie (women's hurling) and Gaelic football, both involving heavy physical contact.

"I lived for them. It was my life, getting out there and training or playing. When my doctor said I could no longer play them, I was devastated. When he said I could swim, walk or golf, I wondered if he should just let me go to sleep."

Even though she lives right near one of the world's finest golf courses, Lahinch, in County Clare, she had never played. But she picked up a couple of golf clubs and now plays to a 15 handicap.

O'Connor's approach differs from that of many.

"Sure, you have good days and bad days, but that's the beauty of it. It would be no challenge if you were good every day. It's a challenge every time you pick up a club. I tell the girls I play with, 'Will you relax, it's only a bloody putt.' "

One of the speakers at the opening ceremonies spoke of the athletes not having to worry about winning a gold medal, that all had their gold medal already.

"He was so right; we have our gold medal. Sure, you go in and win a gold medal and it's great, but I'm more proud to be a member of this group of people. That person up there (her donor) is my gold medal."

The lady behind O'Connor's bar in Doolin, County Clare, is sure to serve you a good pint. And equally sure, to have a donor card for you.


Videos

Photos