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by Phillippe Diederich

October 31, 2010

Swimming bonds kidney transplant recipients

U.S. Masters Swimming members Laura Ellsworth, 33, of Vancouver, Wash., and Jennifer Rigert, 37, of Portland, Ore., have a few things in common: They have been swimming together for two years, and they are both kidney transplant recipients.

Readers may remember Rigert from the May – June issue of SWIMMER this year (Swimming Life, “The Gift of Life,” page 8). Ellsworth met Rigert in 1998, just as she was going into kidney failure. “I was beginning to get very sick. She [Rigert] had had her kidney transplant for about two years at that point, and her situation was very similar to mine,” Ellsworth says.

Both women were lucky. They each had a donor in their immediate family. Rigert’s mother was her donor, and Ellsworth’s father would be her donor. “It was so comforting to meet another young person who had already gone through what I was facing,” Ellsworth says. She adds that she was concerned because she knew little about transplants at the time. She was 23 years old, very sick and afraid. Rigert helped ease her mind. Ellsworth says she showed her that life would be good after a transplant. “When I saw her, I realized that not only would it be okay, but that it would be great, and that I would thrive,” she says.

Ellsworth and Rigert kept in touch after the transplant, but they lived far away from each other. Then, in 2007 they ran into each other at an Organ Donation Awareness event in Portland. Laura told Rigert about the U.S. Transplant Games coming up in 2008, and they decided to go. They traveled and roomed together. Ellsworth, who had never swum competitively before, went to the swimming venues to cheer her friend during her events. “I just fell in love with the sport just watching her and everyone else running around that pool who wouldn't have otherwise been there if it weren't for their donors,” she says. When they got home, Ellsworth immediately joined a gym with a pool. “Jennifer taught me some basics and I've been swimming ever since.”

In 2009, Ellsworth and Rigert traveled to Australia to compete in the World Transplant Games. “I was able to earn a Silver medal in the 100 breast, and Gold in the 50 breast,” Ellsworth says. When the duo returned from Australia, they decided to join a Masters team to learn more and to get more meets under their belts. Now both women swim for Oregon Masters. “I just love swimming, and being on the Masters team has been a wonderful experience,” Ellsworth says.

Both women just returned from the 2010 U.S. Transplant Games in Madison Wis., where Ellsworth won gold in the 100 breast, silver in 50 breast and softball throw, and bronze in long jump. Rigert netted gold in the 100 freestyle, setting a new U.S. record, and gold in 50 free, 50 back and softball throw. For more information on the Transplant Games, visit


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