At 29, Jillian Best was lying in her hospital bed, waiting for a life-saving liver transplant. She had been living with hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, a genetic blood vessel malformation that can affect several organs, for most of her life. After getting diagnosed with the condition at 15, she had been sick more often than not, going in and out of the hospital for years, before finally being put on the organ transplant waiting list. The last year before getting the transplant had been the hardest: Best was anxiously waiting for a compatible donor in her hospital bed, hoping it would come soon enough.
Nearly four years later, the 32-year-old swimmer from Middlesex Masters Swim Team in London, Ont., is back to health and thriving in the pool. During recovery at the hospital after the transplant, a volunteer gave Best a pamphlet about the World Transplant Games, an international multi-sport competition for organ recipients, and told her she should try it out.
With the next edition a little over a year later, Best first thought she couldn’t do it, but then she saw swimming was on the schedule. She had been a swimmer for 10 years when she was younger. Remembering how much she used to love it, and with a new determination to enjoy everything she couldn’t when she was sick, Best decided to get back to swimming as soon as possible to compete at the 2017 World Transplant Games in Spain.
“After being sick for so long, I learned that health is the most important thing in life. Swimming is a sport I’ve always loved, so I couldn’t think of a better way to get back in shape after my surgery,” says Best.
The motivation for competing in an international event was definitely a good one, but most of all, Best found the experience inspiring.
“The World Transplant Games is the friendliest competition I’ve ever been in. Every athlete is grateful to just be there, and while it’s a competition, everybody is very supportive. It’s a beautiful event with even more beautiful people.”
After that first competitive experience back in the pool, Best fell in love with competition all over again and she decided to keep training and competing. Her job as a hairstylist allows her to make her own schedule, making it easier to attend every swim practice.
“I swim five times a week with my team, and I also do yoga and strength conditioning. For me, early morning training is the best: it doesn’t interfere with anything else going on in my life, and it’s the best way to start the day.”
Since 2017, Best has competed at several local and national swim meets and the Canadian Transplant Games, as well as the 2019 World Transplant Games, in which she set five world records in her age group.
In competitions, despite the nerves, she loves testing her own progress against others and aims to raise her own bar every single time she dives into the pool.
“I think that not being able to move for so long gave me a new appreciation for sport. I am well aware that I wouldn’t be there without organ transplants, and I want to make sure I get the most out of my second chance. I want to keep improving to show others that transplant swimmers are just as strong and competitive as anyone else.”