INDIANAPOLIS – If all had gone to plan, the rectangle of water in front of her on this Tuesday would have been completely frozen.
It was on ice, after all, that Jennie Pitman found her true passion in athletics: Skating.
She picked it up as a child growing up in Columbus and continued with it as she moved north up to Indianapolis. She was three-time gold medalist in the United States Figure Skating Association, earning the achievement in compulsory figure skating, free skating and ice dancing.
As an adult, she moved to coaching where she is a master rated coach in group skating and senior rated in free skating by the Professional Skating association.
Swimming was an entirely different modality for Pitman. She experimented with the sport at a young age and that’s as far as it went for nearly three decades.
“I was not good floating,” joked Pitman about her brief time in the sport as a child. “I tend to get bored easily and I got very, very bored very quickly.”
But here she was at the IUPUI Natatorium, getting ready for a light swim routine in a sport that she has adopted over the past decade. There’s no dread for the workout-instead a smile as she jumps in and completes a couple of laps on the olympic-sized competition pool.
“I’m having a lot of fun, and I think I’ll do it for a long time,” said Pitman of swimming.
Two minutes after the workout, Pitman was admiring her new workout gear that she would be sporting for most of the month of August-thousands of miles from the pool she is standing next to.
Her brother Zach arrives with the bag of gear and hands them to Jennie. It starts with a blue hat with “USA” inscribed on the front, then it’s a jacket with the same letters and a logo of where she’s going.
“2013 World Transplant Games. Durban, South Africa.” reads the left part of the jacket, and Pitman immediately puts it on.
“This is the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” said Pitman, who is currently with Transplant Team USA in South Africa for the World Transplant Games, an international competition for people who have had the life-altering surgery. “I wouldn’t change it one bit.”
Even after two liver transplants and the most unforeseen adoption of a new sport.
Skating was very much on the mind of Pitman when she was 25 years old, but so was an unusual tendency when she would take the ice.
“I would just get very nervous at skating competitions and they attributed it to nerves,” said Pitman. “When I was about 25 years old, something wasn’t right.”
A doctor’s visit proved this true as a diagnosis of Crohns Disease was given to the young skater and a surgery was performed, which revealed an issue with her liver.
“In less that six months I was back in the hospital, people we’re wondering if I was pregnant and I wasn’t. I had an extreme amount of fluid develop on my abdomen because my liver was in failure,” said Pitman- yet skating still took priority for that moment.
Close to another gold medal certification, Pitman continued to skate in hopes she could reach the achievement before further health problems developed.
“The day that I passed my last test for my gold metal I basically said, I’m done,” said Pitman. “Now you can put me on the transplant list.”
Eventually a donor was found and the first surgery was performed on January 13, 2005 and the focus immediately turned towards getting back on the ice. Since her abdominal muscle had to be cut in the liver transplant the first activity she sought was one that could rebuild it quickly and with the least amount of adverse side effects.
Swimming was the first thing that came up.
“I wanted to rebuild my muscles to not only help me but my teaching because I teach skating and I’m busy with the kids all the time,” said Pitman of her decision to start-up the sport. “I picked up swimming and I really liked it.”
But it did the trick. Pitman was able to return to her coaching duties at the Carmel Ice Skadium as she did before. But along the way, something else caught her eye.
While swimming she discovered the World Transplant Games-an event started in Portsmouth, England for survivors of major organ replacement back in 1978. Like the Olympics there were winter and summer games that featured over 50 different activities which an athlete could win and features athletes from nearly 70 countries..
At the beginning, Pitman started off by participating in the national transplant games in a number of cities before finally getting her chance at World Transplant Games Winter Games Finland and the Summer Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
“It was very overwhelming,” said Pitman of her first two appearances in the World Transplant Games. “For 2500 people to come together you knew you had a common ground and we all developed the most amazing friendships and at that time some of the donor families were involved and they got to see what happens.
“The good things that do come out of transplantation and that even thought it’s a horrifically tragic situation, something good does come out of it.”
Getting a third chance to do so, however, would be a little more difficult.
As Zach continues to go through the bag of gear, he comes across a the official pin of the 2014 Durban Games. Jennie takes a look at it and recalls their popularity during her last visit to the games when they were held in Australia.
The pin will represent the third that Pitman will have from her trips to World Transplant Games. Getting that one didn’t look so good in 2010.
“Things did not go as well as we hoped,” admitted Pitman of the first liver transplant she received in the 2005. “My doctors and my team pretty much prepared me for the fact that I most likely will need another transplant.”
Their predictions were correct and on April 29, 2010 Pitman received her second liver transplant in five years. As she did before the immediate focus of her recovery was to return to skating and her instruction in that sport. Once again she was successful as she went back to the Carmel Ice Skadium where she remains a coach till this day.
But unlike before, her swimming had more of a purpose than just a way to improve her core strength. Recalling her memories of the transplant games caused Pitman to look at the sport as a goal instead of a step to another accomplishment.
“Their was not a doubt in my mind that with the team I had working for me, working with me in the hospital that I would be back and in shape,” said Pitman. “Immediately as soon as I could I had so many more goals I wanted to get done and finish.”
So work towards getting back in shape began and soon the 2013 Summer Transplant Games in Durban became a possibility. Pitman continued her work in the pool towards the goal, praising the doctors at the IU Medical Center for getting her in a position to start swimming competitively again.
“We lucky to have some of the best transplant physicians, surgeon teams in the country,” said Pitman-and their work helped the swimmer qualify for the games in South Africa.
Unlike her previous visits, Pitman has more than out of the pool but some in as well. Just like in skating, Pitman is looking for medals instead of the just the honor of being apart of the global event.
“I’m hoping to better my times for the last time I was in the games significantly know that I’m really serious about it,” said Pitman.
Of course, that isn’t what it’s all about.
“Meeting up with old and dear friends that’s have had transplants to keep in touch with each other and promote organ donation because a lot of people throughout the world really don’t really discuss it.,” said Pitman.
Once a quick look at the Team USA gear is done, Zach helps to pack it back in the bag as he and Jennie prepare to leave the Natatorium for the final time before leaving for Durban.
“In this day and age there is so much technology, its hard to meet up with people face-to-face, and this puts a name with the face and all of us together,” said Pitman of her excitement for the games in South Africa. “It’s a great support group while promoting what’s kept us alive.”
In the end, however, it’s the entire experience with swimming since her first surgery in 2005 that has helped to add to the life she lives-and in many ways make it better.
“So it comes full circle. It really is a circle of life,” said Pitman. “Life long friends and ways to keep ourselves healthy so we stay out of the hospital and keep doing well and talking to each other.”
“I have the most amazing perspective on life now and everyday is a gift,” said Pitman. “You need to do what you can with what you’ve been given.”
Whether the water is warm or frozen.