CLEARWATER — For years, Countryside High senior Nick Ribble has run in the middle of the cross country pack, just beyond the bright lights of his sport.
So it is not a singular medal, the gold-plated hardware, he is chasing at today's Class 4A state meet, but instead a sense of goals achieved, potential consummated.
"The big thing I want to do is keep improving," he said.
And after crossing the finish at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City, Ribble, 18, will have capped a career that started with a surgical detour 10 years ago.
Ribble's father, Tom, still remembers the day of Aug. 7, 1998. His 8-year-old son felt fatigued. Tom took him to the hospital figuring it was complications from strep throat.
It turned out to be worse.
Nick had liver failure. A transplant was his only hope. Without it, the chances were greater than 90 percent he would die.
A compatible donor organ became available, but because Nick's liver showed some evidence that it was trying to regenerate, surgeons put the donor liver next to — not in place of — his natural liver, a rare procedure known as auxiliary heterotopic transplant. Their hope was that the donor organ would serve as a backup generator until his own liver could resume normal function. If this happened, Nick would be spared a lifelong dependency on anti-rejection drugs.
If his natural liver did not recover, the new liver would serve as a conventional transplant.
Eventually, Nick's natural liver resumed its normal functions. Soon after, his physicians withdrew him from the immunosuppressant drugs, which caused his body to reject the transplanted liver.
"This is the best possible outcome," said Dr. Timothy Pruett, professor of surgery and chief of the transplantation division for the University of Virginia's Charles O. Strickler Transplant Center after the procedure.
"We're thrilled that Nicholas can have a normal life. He won't have to take daily immunosuppressant drugs, a regimen that can be difficult for children, especially during the teenage years."
Nick never had any physical limitations. He continued to play sports. When he was 11, he ran his first distance race at Gasparilla.
"Right from the start, Nick took off and was ahead of me," Tom Ribble said. "Since then, he's just kept going and going."
Nick started running cross country four years ago. He worked the same as the top guys, maybe harder. Only his results were less significant. The days became months, and the months became years, and the progress was agonizingly slow.
Still, he kept trying to cut the necessary minutes and seconds that would bring him into the light. He finally did this season.
Ribble is one of Countryside's top three runners and will be key in helping the Cougars attempt to finish in the top five at state.
"I think I can do well," Ribble said. "So can my team. It should be a great meet."
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4169.