Mount Hebron graduate shows she's past illness at Thailand's World Transplant Games

The Baltimore Sun

Emily Biondi will not be slowed down. Certainly not by near-fatal kidney failure.

Four years after Biondi received her father's donated kidney in a life-saving transplant, she returned to Ellicott City last week from the World Transplant Games - a celebration of transplant survivors from around the globe - held in Bangkok, Thailand.

Biondi, a 2001 Mount Hebron graduate, took part in the National Transplant Games in Louisville, Ky., last year and won four track-and-field medals despite receiving no previous training.

Her success sent her to Bangkok, where more than 1,500 athletes with transplanted organs gathered from nearly 70 countries. At the World Transplant Games, she won the gold medal in the 200-meter run and a silver in the long jump.

"We all have something ... to show everyone," Biondi said. "Before college I was very active, but I had to stop, had to do dialysis. I was very out of shape. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't sick anymore."

The competitions help raise awareness of kidney disease, which affects 20 million Americans. The host of the international games, the World Transplant Games Federation, also hopes to inspire more people to donate organs. In Maryland, 1,407 people are waiting for a new kidney, according to Verena Huetteneder, the National Kidney Foundation's public relations manager.

After suffering from high blood pressure and constant exhaustion, Biondi underwent tests on her kidneys in the spring of 2003. The testing uncovered serious kidney damage. The cause is unknown. She dropped out of Florida Southern College, enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and began weekly dialysis treatment.

Biondi was heavily medicated with prednisone, causing her to gain weight and further drain her energy. In December 2003, her father, Norman Biondi, underwent six hours of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center and gave his daughter one of his kidneys.

After a steady recovery, Biondi was recruited by Maryland's team coordinator for the National Kidney Foundation-run National Transplant Games.

"When I heard about it, I said [to Emily], 'You can do it, give it a thought,'" Norman Biondi said. "I said, 'You have a new kidney, it worked well for me in high school when I did athletics, maybe that's all you need.'"

Biondi joined Team Maryland as the youngest of 12 athletes, traveled to Louisville and won the gold medal in the long jump. A theater performer at places such as the Timonium Dinner Theater since high school, she also sang at the competition's opening and closing ceremonies.

In preparing for the World Transplant Games, Biondi turned to Jason McGinnis, Howard Community College's track team jump coach, and for the first time received formal training. She hoped to take advantage of her short legs and long torso in the high jump, a new sport for her.

"Her long jump is what got her into the World Games, but she was working on the high jump. She really wanted it," said Emily's mother, Harriet "Honey" Biondi.

Biondi left for Bangkok on Aug. 22 with her father and spent the first week touring the city. The two took canal tours, visited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

The track-and-field events began in the second week. However, due to a "terrible language barrier," the high jump was rescheduled a half-hour earlier without Biondi being told, she said. As she warmed up with Team USA, the high jump went on without her.

"I missed my event, which was sad, but I had to let it go," she said. "It gave me fuel to compete in my other events."

In Biondi's second event, the 4x100 relay, the team finished in fourth place. She finished second in the long jump, her mark only 0.11 meters short of Australian Seona Rough's first-place jump.

In the 200-meter run, Biondi held back at the beginning, reserving her energy as she ran in fifth place. And then she reached the curve.

"I didn't even watch anyone else, I just started to rocket," she said. "I put my form together and took off. I passed everybody."

With an international gold medal in hand, Biondi has returned to UMBC and plans to complete her degree in health administration and policy by May. In the meantime, she will be performing at Dundalk Community Theater and with illusionist Shawn Anthony's World Magic Tour.

"She was so sick before the [organ] donation," Honey Biondi said. "You can see how much this did for her."

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