Greg Gelinas says he has probably used up his nine lives.

In 1977, at age 18, Gelinas was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In the mid-1990s, he began experiencing kidney failure.

Since then, he has undergone two kidney transplants, a pancreas transplant, had extensive eye surgery, and has broken 15 ribs and a collarbone in a bike accident.

But tonight the Portland resident will board a plane headed to Sweden to swim in the World Transplant Games, his third appearance in those games in his 52 years. He has competed in the U.S. Transplant Games five times.

“I am very much looking forward to going,” Gelinas said. “I’m competitive and athletic, but I also love seeing my friends.”

He says one friend in particular is the reason he’s able to compete in the first place.

Enter Ken Sawtelle.

Gelinas met Sawtelle at Maine Medical Center, where they both work — Gelinas for 32 years, Sawtelle a bit longer.

“We became fast friends as we have similar interests,” said Sawtelle, the hospital’s director of Central Services.

The friends loved to fly-fish, golf and go for long walks. They both met their wives at the hospital. Pat Gelinas and Debbie Sawtelle are friends as well.

Greg Gelinas had his first kidney transplant on June 21, 1997. But after seven months, his body rejected it and he went on dialysis, which took a huge toll on his body. At 6 feet tall, he weighed only 128 pounds.

“It was devastating to see him like that,” Ken Sawtelle said. “You bond with someone when you have experienced marriages, births of children, successes. We have a wonderful friendship.”

When Gelinas said he would need a new kidney to survive, Sawtelle offered one of his own.

Gelinas told him he couldn’t let him risk his own life.

“Would you do it for me?” Sawtelle asked.

“In a heartbeat,” Gelinas responded.

So on Jan. 5, 1999, a day Gelinas and Sawtelle still celebrate as a second birthday, Gelinas received one of his best friend’s kidneys.

“You can’t put a price on friendship. I would do it again, absolutely,” Sawtelle said. “I can’t say I wasn’t selfish. I didn’t want to lose a friend.”

Gelinas first heard about the World Transplant Games when he was on dialysis, and vowed to compete if he recovered.

About two months after surgery, he went to a local school pool to try swimming, which many suggested was a good sport for someone recovering from surgery.

It was a stretch for Gelinas, who had been a football, basketball and baseball player at Deering High School. His only swimming experience was from splashing around in lakes.

That didn’t stop him from training to reach a competitive level. Today, he trains by swimming between 1,600 and 2,400 meters after work and on weekends.

In next week’s games, Gelinas will swim the 50, 100, 200 and 400-meter freestyle, as well as the 100-meter backstroke. In other games he has competed in cycling.

He also said he just loves to swim.

“It’s comforting and relaxing. You jump in the water and all your cares go away,” Gelinas said.

He is the only Mainer on Team U.S.A. this year. When he arrives in Sweden, about 80 other athletes from around the country will join him.

In 2004, Gelinas won two silver medals at the U.S. Transplant Games, and when he returned home, he gave one to Sawtelle in appreciation.

This year, Gelinas has a different plan: “I’m going for the gold.”

Staff Writer Ellie Cole can be contacted at 791-6359 or at:

[email protected]