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That's the Spirit: Survival of the Toughest

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FITNESS talks to National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games gold medalist Cheryl Rainford.

When Cheryl Rainford's kidneys failed suddenly in 2001, the then-30-year-old writer in Des Moines joined a list of more than 80,000 others waiting for organ donors, knowing that her chances were slim. Her luck changed when an old high school friend, Doug Cutchins, volunteered one of his kidneys, and six months after transplant surgery, Cheryl hopped on a bike, rekindling her love of fitness and firing a new passion for competition. Since then she has earned seven gold medals in cycling, swimming, and other events at the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games. This July, Cheryl will compete in her fourth Transplant Games. Winning, she says, never gets old.

I feel humble when...

"I'm riding through the prairie on my bike under the vast blue sky. It reminds me that life is so fragile, and yet so awesome."

The most important lesson I've learned is...

"To trust myself, instead of listening too closely to other people's advice on how I should train. I know what's best for me and what my body is capable of."

My biggest fear is...

"Going back on dialysis someday. I worry about the stress it would put on my husband and 5-year-old daughter."

I never feel guilty about...

"Taking a break from training. There are days when I'd rather catch up on laundry, play with my daughter, and sit on the porch with my husband, drinking a glass of wine. So I do."

I feel strongest when...

"I'm on the starting line with the other transplant recipients. Their enthusiasm and resilience electrify me, and I end up pushing past my limits in the race."

My proudest moment was...

"Giving Doug my gold medal in the women's virtual triathlon at the 2008 U.S. Transplant Games. He earned it; I couldn't have dreamed of that moment without his gift."

On an easy workout day...

"I take a gentle yoga class and go for a walk."

At the finish line I think...

"I did it! Now, breathe."

My next fitness adventure is...

"To complete my first sprint triathlon this year."

Fitness is...

"My destiny. Before I got sick, I never saw myself as an athlete or a competitor. It took facing death to bring it out in me. Now I'll never turn back."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2010.

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