SUN CITY CENTER — Bo Dahlgren picked up his golf clubs — the ones that won him a gold medal — and loaded them into his golf cart. He slowly backed out of the garage, past his car with the license plate frame reading "liver recipient" and a decal championing organ donation.
He pulled up to the driving range, parked the cart and pulled out two clubs. Most weeks he plays just for fun at Falcon Watch Golf Club in Sun City Center. But in less than a month, Dahlgren will be golfing for gold on an unfamiliar course in Madison, Wis.
Golf is Dahlgren's sport of choice at this year's U.S. Transplant Games, an Olympic-style event for organ donors and recipients held every two years. At 85 years old, the Sun City Center resident will be the oldest competitor at the games, which run from July 30 to Aug. 4.
Dahlgren and his wife, Dottie, have attended eight U.S. Transplant Games and two international events since they started participating in 1992. The games, they said, prove that organ donation works. Transplant recipients shoot hoops, swim laps and swing golf clubs.
While the couple jokes about bringing home the gold, they said it's the camaraderie and support of the games — not gold and silver medals — that they consider the real prize.
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The phone call came at midnight on Dec. 8, 1990. Asleep in his Louisville, Ky., home, Dahlgren, then 65, heard the words he had waited two days to hear:
"We found a liver match."
A 24-year-old man had died in a car accident in Buffalo, N.Y. A liver was waiting for Dahlgren in Pittsburgh if he could get there in a few hours.
A chartered jet and ambulance whisked Dahlgren to the hospital and by 8 a.m., he was in the operating room. After 12 hours on the table, Dahlgren had a second shot at life.
"To me, it was a total miracle," Dottie said.
The new organ changed everything, she said. Her husband's "egg yolk" yellow skin, a result of jaundice, returned to normal. His once cloudy eyes cleared and his hair, temporarily gray from illness, darkened.
Since then, Dahlgren makes an effort to take better care of his body. He watches what he eats, doesn't drink or smoke and stays physically fit.
"I can do pretty much everything I want," he said.
"Except the dishes," Dottie joked.
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When Dahlgren first participated in the games, he said less than 10 people competed for Team Kentucky. This year Kentucky and Florida will have 71 and 122 athletes, respectively.
While the games have grown, the basic structure of the event remains unchanged.
After each team walks into the opening ceremonies carrying a symbol of state pride — a flag, a cowboy hat, an inflatable palm tree — the oldest athlete at the games will read the Athlete Oath, pledging good sportsmanship and fair play. This year, that honor goes to Dahlgren.
It's the first time he will be individually recognized at the games, but his family supports him year after year.
At the Salt Lake City games in 1996, three of the couple's four kids surprised them in their hotel room.
Dahlgren's second oldest child, Debbie, 54, said the games were an emotional experience. She was with her parents when they flew to Pittsburgh for the transplant in 1990.
"It was the scariest moment of my life," she said. "It's like when you feel something slipping away and there's nothing you can do."
Debbie never thought her father would live to see his grandchildren.
The games were also memorable for Laura Gatlin, the couple's granddaughter, who attended the Atlanta games in 1994.
Gatlin was 10 when Dahlgren — or, as she calls him, "Poppa" — was sick. She remembers writing stories for school about his transplant and recovery.
Watching Dahlgren commit to a healthy lifestyle and compete in the games has left a mark on Gatlin, now 30.
"When you're young, you have a concept of being immortal," she said. "You're not. Your body is not indestructible."
While some of the results of Dahlgren's transplant benefitted others — he started a support group in Kentucky and encourages others to become organ donors — it's his personal promise to take care of his new organ that others find most inspiring.
"People always say they're going to change," Dahlgren said. "People don't change until there's a crisis."
Sarah Hutchins can be reached at (813) 661-2443 or [email protected]