Kiwi cycling star Justin Grace is on a mission to win gold at the World Transplant Games - almost three years on from receiving a life-saving liver transplant.

Grace won 13 national track titles and raced for New Zealand at the 2002 Manchester and 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games before switching to coaching; a role in which he mentored Great Britain medal-winners at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

He made it to Rio despite being in poor health as he battled primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease where the liver's bile ducts become blocked. It was a condition he was first diagnosed with as a teen and linked to bowel disease which he had life-saving surgery for in his mid-20s.

The magnitude of the liver illness was revealed as he returned from Rio, with the results of blood tests taken during the Olympics showing he may have just six months to live without a transplant.

Advertisement

Based in Manchester with his family, the 48-year-old father of two juggles coaching Great Britain's Olympic cyclists with his own training, and volunteer work raising awareness for organ transplant charities and Britain's National Health System.

Grace said he was
Grace said he was "itching" it get back on his bike, following a few months of recovery. Photo / Supplied

As he prepares for the World Transplant Games, Grace revealed the reality of his health battle kicked in while he was filling out pre-transplant forms with his wife.

One document asked for a reason for the transplant - his doctor had written "dead in six months".

"Up until then my wife had been okay, but that was the point where it really hit her hard," he said.

As well as being a literal lifeline, the transplant was a game-changer for Grace's attitude.

Despite having some days when he thought "I don't want to be this person", he recognised he was luckier than others, and wanted to use his profile in the sporting community to raise awareness and improve the donor system.

"Campaigns about speaking to your family and letting them know your wishes is probably one of the fastest ways to grow organ donation anywhere," he said.

He was also stoked to be jumping back into the saddle more frequently as he geared up for the World Transplant Games, being held in Newcastle in August.

The Games take place biennially and feature 16 sports, including football, cycling, track and field, tennis and swimming.

Justin Grace, his wife Erika Grace and their two daughters, Madison, back in 2016. Photo / File
Justin Grace, his wife Erika Grace and their two daughters, Madison, back in 2016. Photo / File

Grace made his return to competitive cycling at the 2017 British Transplant Games, gaining a fifth-place finish.

"I had actually done very little at all in terms of training - I just got on my bike and rode," he said.

Heading into these games, he said he was back to riding at between 80-85 per cent of his potential.

"It's up and down," he said.

"That's just the life of a transplant patient - there's days where you just don't feel good and you just can't do stuff.

But most days, Grace said, there "wasn't much" he couldn't do.

"I probably wouldn't take up cage fighting at the moment but, outside of that, I can pretty much do what I want."

Grace's work for the NHS and with various organ transplant charities was something he saw as necessary, to give back to the system that gave him a second chance at life.

His health battles weren't over either.

He still has to take "handfuls" of pills each day; including immunosuppressants which reduce the body's chances of rejecting a donated organ.

What many people didn't know, Grace said, was that a transplant was a treatment, rather than a cure.

The primary concerns were around the lifespan of the organ, the disease coming back, and transplant rejection - a process in which a transplant recipient's immune system rejects, then destroys the transplanted tissue.

"Most transplant patients probably think about it a lot more than they'd say," Grace said.

His reasoning for pulling on a blue, red and white jersey as opposed to one bearing the silver fern, was the same.

"If I was in New Zealand and I'd had my transplant in New Zealand, I'd be representing the country, and that would be it," he said.

"I'm still a Kiwi at heart."

But he said it felt right to honour his donor and help the system, by raising awareness about a desperate need for organ donations.