Transplant recipient is all heart, swimming to success

Posted at 8:27 AM, Jun 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-09 08:29:55-04

HOLLAND, Mich. -- Fred Nelis is all heart, even though his heart didn't originally belong to him.

He's a local transplant patient who is defying the odds, swimming his way to success.

If the name Fred Nelis sounds familiar, it should. He gained national attention when he and a friend both received the gift of life from the same organ donor. Now, Fred is practicing hard for the Transplant Games of America to be held this weekend in Cleveland.

Fred Nelis

Fred Nelis

To prepare, Nelis swims four days a week, roughly 10,000 yards.

But, competing is nothing new to Nelis. Even after getting his new heart, his love for swimming never went away. "My fondest memories are always being with swimmers or around swimming."

His love for swimming started in 8th grade. Nearly 50 years later, Nelis is still doing what he loves, diving into his passion week after week. His swimming stroke only slowed down when he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at 38.

Fred Nelis

Fred Nelis

"My heart was functioning half as well as any other persons," he said.

For nearly two decades, he continued to compete, trying to out-swim time.

"I didn't really take no for an answer," Nelis said. But in 2013, his performance was compromised. Nelis found himself back in the hands of doctors, this time receiving a new heart.

One week post transplant, Nelis was back in the pool, doing what he loves. "There's a few dings in the armor, but I'm still wearing that suit," he said.

"I’m extremely proud of him," wife Jean Nelis said. "He has always set very high goals for himself

Just two years after his transplant, Nelis will compete in the Transplant Games of America, the Donate Life Transplant Games for living donors and those who have undergone life-saving transplant surgeries.

Nelis will compete in six events total: 50 meter freestyle, 50 backstroke, 50 butterfly, 100 freestyle, and as a member of the 200 freestyle relay and the 200 medley relay.

"I'm excited because it’s the first time I’m going to meet hundreds of people," he said. "I want to get back to where I was when I was 40. That’s my goal."

Hundreds will compete alongside Nelis, each with a different story, all celebrating prosperity and life.

Fred Nelis

Fred Nelis

"I’m sure there will be people to bring tears to my eyes, because if I thought I had it bad, there’s always someone in worse shape," he said. "I use the analogy of a phoenix rising from the ashes. That’s the celebration we’re going to have this weekend There’s going to be hundreds of phoenixes that rise, and we’re going to fly together and celebrate life."

Nelis tells FOX 17 he is also planning to participate int the World Transplant Games next summer in Spain.