As an elite athlete, U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van, 26, has a unique appreciation of physical fitness and health. So when her former roommate, Nigerian skeleton athlete Seun Adebiyi, needed a bone marrow transplant, Van grew even more inspired.
Adebiyi, the first athlete in skeleton to compete for Nigeria, was diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma earlier this year while training in Salt Lake City. "He had been training for the 2014 Olympics and received his official diagnosis when he was living with me," Van recalled. "He has a rare form of leukemia and lymphoma and ended up having to use stem cells from umbilical cord blood because he couldn't find a match. It's not as ideal, and all he wanted was for his friends to join the registry so other patients could have a better situation than he did."
Van signed up at bethematch.com and received a simple cheek swab kit in the mail. (Blood tests and physicals come later, once a match is identified.) Unfortunately, Van learned she wasn't a match for Adebiyi, but a different donation opportunity arose. While training for the 2011 World Ski Jumping Championships in Oslo, Norway, she received the news she was needed as a donor. The recipient? A total stranger identified only as a 49-year-old male. "They only tell you the age and gender," Van explained.
On March 14, she returned to Park City, Utah, from the world championships -- where foggy weather and poor timing caused Van, the 2009 world champion, to come up short in the qualification round -- and began a five-day course of Neupogen injections to stimulate the production of white blood cells in the bone marrow. "That was the most painful part," Van said. "My hips really ached from my bones working so hard. But it was worth it. People suffer for years with leukemia. As a donor, you only have to deal with a week of discomfort to be able to give someone the rest of [his] life."
When it was time to harvest Van's cells, she flew from Park City to San Francisco. She was hooked up to a machine, and the stem cells were drawn from her blood. "It was sort of like dialysis," Van explained. "The blood comes out one arm and goes back into the other."
Van's donation was so successful, the entire process took only three hours. For some donors, a donation can take up to six hours over a course of two days. The minor discomfort of the donation process left her a bit sore, but nothing Van couldn't overcome with a couple of days of rest. Van was back on the slopes by the end of the week.
Now back home in Park City, Van has resumed a full-time training schedule with a focus on 2012. In addition to a 2009 world title, Van is also a 13-time U.S. national champion and the North American distance record holder (171 meters/563 feet). And while competing, she's been a constant force in the fight for equality within her sport.
Last year, Van was part of a group that sued the organizers of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for discrimination in not allowing women's ski jumping to be part of the Olympic Winter Games. Van and her crew lost their lawsuit. But the International Olympic Committee was so impressed by the level of skill displayed at the 2011 world championships that on April 6, the IOC ruled in favor of the sport's inclusion in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Van plans to be there in full force. "I am thrilled the IOC decided to add our sport," she said. "Personally, this means a lot to me. I started ski jumping when there were no international women's competitions. We've worked really hard as athletes fighting for our sport, so this feels like a big success."
If Van's will, dedication and performance are any indication of the depth of women's ski jumping, the women will be flying high in 2014. And if the call comes to donate bone marrow again, Van says she wouldn't hesitate. "If someone else needs me to donate, I'd do it in a heartbeat," she said. "The opportunity to save someone's life means everything. It's an honor."
Van's friend and roommate, Seun Adebiyi, is now healthy after his successful transplant. A Yale law school graduate, he's living and working in Salt Lake City and training for the 2014 Games. Adebiyi actively recruits bone marrow donors with a goal of reaching 10,000. He urges donors to sign up at dkmsamericas.org. To follow Adebiyi's progress toward 2014, visit his blog at nigeria2014.wordpress.com.