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Raymond Jonasson, right, competes in the 400-metre race at the Ontario Masters Athletics Indoor Track and Field Championships in March. He placed third in the 55-59 age group.

Organ donation gives runner another shot at the podium

By Mike Pearson, News staff

In less than three years, Raymond Jonasson has gone from his apparent death bed to the top of the podium, thanks to sheer determination and an organ donor’s gift.

On March 9, the Ancaster native, now a Kitchener resident, rediscovered his love of sport. He returned to the Ontario Masters Athletics Indoor Track and Field Championships after a 17-year hiatus. After receiving a life-saving liver transplant in July 2011, Jonasson was initially just happy just to be competing. Now, he’s bringing home the hardware.

At the Ontario Masters, Jonasson won gold in the long jump and bronze in the 200 and 400-metre events for the men’s 55–59 age group.

Despite his success, Jonasson’s return to competitive running has been filled with hurdles. In 2012, he made his triumphant return to the Ancaster Mill Race, his first appearance at the event since 1996. He was happy to finish, despite walking part of the course due to sheer exhaustion. A hamstring injury forced Jonasson to miss the Ancaster race in 2013. But this year, the date (June 10) is firmly marked on his calendar.

“Last year was quite a struggle,” Jonasson acknowledged. “I completed one race. My first one, I hurt myself and that’s why I spent a whole year (recovering).”

Jonasson’s only race of 2013 was at the Ontario Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships. He carried strong medal hopes. With the intent of finishing first or second in the 400-metre race, Jonasson planned to send his medals to his organ donor’s family. He secured permission from race organizers to run a victory lap. He also planned to visit the hospital where he received his transplant to mark the two-year anniversary.

At the championships last July, Jonasson’s medal hopes were immediately dashed. He pulled a hamstring coming out of the starter’s box. His race and his competitive year were over.

Despite the setback, Jonasson hopes to follow through on his goals, one year later than anticipated. He plans to use the Ancaster Mill Race as a tune-up before returning to the outdoor Masters in July. He’ll also continue his advocacy efforts to convince more people to register for organ donation.

When Jonasson last tackled the five-kilometre Old Mill Race back in 1996, he was a seasoned Masters runner. He had just won a road race in Stoney Creek and planned to finish in the top-five of the Ancaster event. But during the closing stages of the Ancaster race, something went noticeably wrong. Jonasson, then 39, felt an overwhelming sense of fatigue as he staggered from side to side down the final stretch.

Conceding ground to his opponents, he finished seventh. He collapsed on a mound of grass as his worried fiancée and paramedics rushed to his aid.

By the summer of 2011, Jonasson needed a liver transplant to stave off certain death. At the 11th hour, a donor came forward.

To show his eternal gratitude, Jonasson organized a “Run aLung” event to promote organ donation.

Jonasson plans to continue his remarkable athletic pursuits at this year’s Ancaster Mill Race, which runs during the evening of June 10 at the Ancaster Rotary Centre. With a history spanning 31 years, the race has become one of Hamilton’s most popular running events.

The event is a tribute to 14-year-old Kayla Baker, a Cambridge resident who was awaiting a double-lung transplant. Sadly, Kayla passed away in hospital.

While he’s happy to advocate for organ donation, highlighting his own success story, Jonasson relishes the opportunity to compete with other Masters athletes on a level playing field.

“When I’m there, I’m an athlete. I’m not a transplant person. The difference is, they see the ability first,” he said.

Looking ahead to next year, Jonasson hopes to compete at the World Transplant Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

“I’m looking at them right now,” Jonasson said during a telephone interview. “These are my targets.”

His recent 400-metre times are competitive with the world mark. Between now and August, 2015, he’ll wait and see if his hamstring will allow him to compete in the long jump.

Along with his new lease on life, Jonasson experienced a family milestone that once seemed unattainable. His daughter Elizabeth graduated from Fresno State University as the dean’s medallist in the faculty of business last May.

“She wanted to have something special to give me, but just being there was my win,” said Jonasson.

Among the many organ donation myths that Jonasson has tried to dispel, he tells prospective donors that organs and tissue can be donated regardless of a donor’s age. He points out that a liver can regenerate itself in a recipient’s body. He urges everyone to register online as organ donors at www.beadonor.ca.

As a living testament to organ donation, Jonasson will deliver his message again when he returns to Ancaster.

As in previous years, the Ancaster Mill Race features a one-kilometre kids race, plus a five-kilometre and 10-kilometre race starting on Jerseyville Road and ending at the Ancaster Rotary Centre. Online race registration is now open at www.ancastermillrace.com.

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