There I was standing under the event banner at the base of Aspen Mountain, with my arms raised joyfully yelling, “Summit for Life!” My husband, Noah, on one side, Chris Klug on the other, alongside a group of extraordinary human beings touched by transplantation. It was the kick-off to one of the most incredible events I was honored to be a part of.
Hundreds of people started to gather around the start line, all preparing to climb Aspen Mountain in support of the Chris Klug Foundation and to raise awareness of organ donation. We were all there to celebrate life and the energy sure made me feel alive. Two minutes left until kick-off and I made my way over to join Chris Klug and a few others to do the countdown. 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – … the excitement was building … 6 – 5 – 4 … I was so grateful for my gift of life and to be living in this very moment … 3 – 2 – 1 and off they went.
Everyone was cheering as 377 racers, 46 teams and 140 gondola riders made their way up more than 3,000 vertical feet to the summit of Aspen Mountain. What a beautiful site to watch the sea of strong, kindhearted individuals climb the snowy mountain for a cause so near and dear to my heart. My husband, family and I excitedly hopped in the gondola and took the 17-minute ride to the top. It was exhilarating and moving to ride the gondola at night. We soaked in the stars and Aspen lights as we soared above the mountain and watched the headlamps of the individuals making their way to the top. I hung my head out the gondola window and cheered on the participants with sheer excitement and in awe of the distance and elevation that they were tackling.
My heart was overflowing with joy when my family and I stepped off of the gondola at 11,212 feet elevation. I anxiously waited for the first person to cross the finish line. The athleticism was off the charts at this event. I admire the determination of athletes and believe if it were not for my health hurdles, that I would have greatly enjoyed sports. I like to refer to myself as a medical athlete because just like the athletes climbing the mountain, it takes vigor, determination, and stamina to live with chronic health issues and be a transplant recipient.
All of a sudden, we saw a headlamp approaching the finish line and the crowd started hooting and hollering. Before we knew it, John Gaston came soaring through the finish line. The speed in which he was going was astounding and hard to comprehend that he was going at such a pace up the incredibly steep mountain. John topped his old record by more than one minute, finishing at 41:49.6. A comment from John really touched me. He said, “It’s one of those races where it’s really not about the racing. What we do, it may hurt for a short period of time, but it’s not real pain. It’s not real suffering. It’s nice to have that as a reminder.” This exemplifies the incredible souls that were there helping us raise awareness and give others a second chance like I was so fortunate to receive.
Call it a happy high, rocky mountain high or just a good old high on how amazing life is, it felt like I floated into the Aspen Sundeck for the Party for Life and awards ceremony. After fun video interviews, great mingling and meaningful conversations with the amazing attendees and kindred spirits in the large indoor venue, the program was about to begin. I was filled with gratitude and so humbled as I was about to be honored in front of a room full of several hundreds of wonderful, influential, inspiring people from the organ donation community, Aspen and beyond. Next thing I knew, I was all smiles and headed towards the stage after Chris gave the most heartfelt and touching introduction. Chris did a brief Q&A with myself and the other award recipient, Jim Brien. The whole event felt like a dream. If you would have told my family fifteen years ago, when I was on death’s doorstep in need of a lifesaving kidney transplant, that years later I would be standing on a stage, next to Chris Klug, on the top of Aspen mountain, receiving the Bounce Back Give Back award, it would have seemed impossible. However, that is the beauty of life, the miracle of transplantation and our ability to bounce back and give back.
Being recognized for living authentically, doing the best I can day-by-day and continuing to strive to bounce back and give back through it all is very meaningful and humbling. It is thanks to the power of positivity, constant learning, balance, determination, willpower and zest for life that I continue to bounce back with all of my might. It boils down to how bad we want to fight and what we are fighting for and I fight to keep living a long, healthy and happy life with my husband and family. Giving back means so much to me because it gives purpose for all that I’ve been through and is very therapeutic. I believe I’m still alive to exemplify that one can live a fulfilling life post-transplant and show organ donors how life-changing their gift can be.
I continue to be inspired by how amazing life can be despite its difficulties. We must never lose sight of the positives, continue to find the good and choose to bounce back and give back in the midst of it all. Receiving this award from such a genuine and inspiring Foundation as CKF is something I’ll treasure forever. Thank you, Chris Klug, CKF, Aspen community, family and beyond for helping to fuel my purpose and passion to keep sharing my story, to keep fighting and climbing the mountain of life.
Photos by Michael Stevens.
To see more visit: www.michaelcbstevens.com/summit