When Ryan Zinn was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy at age 14, he thought he would never run again, much less participate in organized sports.
His heart had become enlarged and weakened and could no longer pump blood efficiently.
"When I learned that my heart was damaged, I was resigned to the idea that I would never run again because my heart wouldn't support it, so I was going to have to walk through the rest of my life," Zinn said. "I had wanted to be a star athlete, but I figured that wouldn't be possible."
The 41-year-old Worthington resident never could have guessed he would go on to win 46 medals in the Transplant Games of America and the World Transplant Games after receiving a heart transplant nearly 26 years ago.
Zinn has been successful in those events consistently over the past 23 years, most recently placing first in the shot put (32 feet, 11 inches) and second in the 400 meters (1 minute, 8.95 seconds) in the 40- to 49-year-old age bracket of the 2014 Transplant Games of America held July 12-15 in Houston.
"When you go from thinking you'll never be able to run again to living a full, active life, you can't help but to appreciate each day a little more," Zinn said. "The Transplant Games have been a fantastic experience in so many ways. They have motivated me to stay fit and to see the world. They have also given me the opportunity to make a lot of lasting friendships and help spread the word that transplantation works."
Before Zinn began having heart problems, he competed in several sports while growing up in Tiffin, including baseball, basketball, golf, football and track and field.
"I was very active and I had wonderful health," Zinn said. "I was the fastest kid in my class."
However, he began showing symptoms of his heart problems during his freshman year at Sycamore Mohawk High School and was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy after he nearly passed out during a basketball practice.
Zinn took a number of medications to try to treat his condition after spending several weeks in various hospitals, but when he suffered a stroke in September 1988, he was told his best option would be a heart transplant. He received his new heart on Sept. 26, 1988, and was discharged from the hospital and cleared to return to school just 13 days later.
"My doctors told me that I had to do this or I would die in six months and that's when it finally hit me right between my eyes that I was facing my own mortality," Zinn said. "A heart transplant was considered a pretty risky procedure back in those days, but I was one of the lucky ones who made it through.
"I had to deal with the fact that I was alive because someone else had died. But I learned to look at it as a blessing that he told his parents that he wanted to be an organ donor, and now I'm eternally grateful to not only his family but to every donor family."
Six months after his heart transplant, Zinn began sprinting for Mohawk's track team. He competed in golf and track as a junior and senior, and helped the Warriors' 400 relay set a team record as a senior.
"I felt normal when I returned to school and I was cleared to start going to the weight room six weeks later," Zinn said. "I was dead last when I started running the 100 for my track team that year, but it didn't matter because I was running again.
"I had to learn different ways to train and condition my body because when I start running, my heart rate doesn't increase as well as it should. Other than that, I felt as normal as I did before I got sick."
Zinn began competing in the Transplant Games of America in 1992 while he was a student at Ohio State.
"I had a great time competing within a community that really understood me and I was hooked," he said. "All of the sudden, I had 700 or 800 other people around me who had received life-saving organ donations who I could not only compete with, but who I could also share stories with."
While competing in the Transplant Games of America and the World Transplant Games, each of which is held every other year, Zinn has earned 15 gold, 17 silver and 14 bronze medals. He has won two medals in table tennis and one in badminton, with the rest earned in track events.
"It's fun to compete and win, but the relationships are what I value the most," Zinn said. "Even when I don't medal, I'm happy for those who do because I know what it's like to get that death sentence and to still find a way to continue getting out of bed each day to get to this point."
Zinn has tried to live a full life in honor of his heart donor, whom he knows only as James, and James' family.
After being valedictorian of Mohawk's class of 1991, Zinn went on to earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and master's degrees in both industrial systems engineering and human resources from Ohio State.
Zinn, who recently was married, works for Ohio State as a corporate fundraiser after being an engineer for several years.
"The best way for us to honor our donors is to live our lives to their fullest and cherish this gift of life while finding ways to pay forward," Zinn said. "I'll forever be grateful to my donor, and all donors, because I've got such a full life, and that's because of the gift he shared with me."
Lifeline of Ohio community relations manager Heather Blausey said she hopes Zinn's story inspires more people to become organ donors.
Central Ohio residents can sign up to become an organ donor at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles or at lifelineofohio.org.
"Ryan's a great ambassador for organ donation because he's living proof that it works," Blausey said. "Ryan's lived almost twice as long with his current heart as he did with his old one, and he has a great life. He runs and wins medals all over the world, and to look at him, you would never know that he's received a heart donation. He's a great example of why it's so important to become a donor."