As he settles into the starting blocks today for the 100 meters at the Central Coast Section semifinals, Joelle Earle will feel the blood pumping through his heart and silently thank the man who gave it to him.
Two years ago, the Santa Teresa High senior received a heart transplant from an 18-year-old donor at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. Now Earle, 17, is one of the top 20 sprinters in the CCS.
Today at San Jose City College, Earle will run in the fourth heat of the 100 meters and anchor the Saints' 400-meter relay team, hoping to qualify for Friday's CCS finals.
``My experience has taught me not to take life for granted,'' said Earle, who suffered numerous heart attacks before the transplant. ``I thought I was going to die. Getting the new heart was an immediate relief.''
Earle doesn't know who the donor was, but he wrote a letter to the family of the accident victim, expressing his gratitude.
``I told them I was sorry for their loss,'' Earle said. ``And I promised the heart would not go to waste, that I would put it to good use.''
Health problems have plagued Earle since he was a child. At 9, he experienced chest pain and fainting spells that were diagnosed as asthma attacks.
When the episodes became more severe, doctors discovered that Earle had an anomalous coronary artery -- a congenital condition in which the main coronary artery stems from the pulmonary artery instead of the aorta. Because blood in the pulmonary artery carries less oxygen, the heart is forced to work harder. At times, Earle's heart would beat up to 200 times per minute and he would go into cardiac arrest.
And what doctors originally thought was asthma were actually heart attacks.
Earle underwent two surgical procedures, one to reposition the valve, and another to install an implantable defibrillator. But the attacks continued, and he eventually suffered heart failure.
He was placed on a machine called Thoratec, which does the work of a patient's ventricles, and it helped keep him alive for three weeks until he received a new heart April 3, 2003.
Earle's recovery proved tough on his mother, Nancy Davis. She knew how much he wanted to run -- Earle had been a sprinter since junior high -- but she didn't want him to push his new heart too hard.
``I wanted to go out and train right away,'' Earle said. ``But I was in a wheelchair for two months. I had to learn to walk all over again.''
But eight months after the surgery, Davis gave her son her blessing to return to the track.
``Seeing him run the first time, there was a lot of fear,'' Davis said. ``But when he is on the track he gets a look of determination that you don't see in anything else he does.''
When Earle arrived at his first practice since the surgery, he didn't tell Coach Mike Dudley about the transplant, telling his mom he prefers to give that information on a ``need-to-know basis.'' But Davis soon let Dudley know about her son's condition.
``I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared to coach him at first,'' Dudley said. ``Track is a sport where you have to hurt to improve. But he had the passion and wanted to take it as far as he could. They've made it clear they don't want me to pull any punches in his training. I don't feel any pressure to hold him back.''
Earle's goal was to become the fastest guy on campus, and he has accomplished that. The 5-foot-9, 135-pound sprinter qualified for the CCS trials by running an 11.33-second 100 meters, and he said his personal best is 10.8 seconds.
Advances in medical technology have opened many doors for transplant patients. Take the World Transplant Games, which started in 1978. More than 1,500 athletes competed in the 2003 games in France. The Transplant Games world record in the 100 is 11.18 seconds.
After high school, Earle wants to compete at De Anza College, and he hopes to continue his track career at UCLA or USC.
For a transplant recipient to compete at such a high level is unusual, but not out of the question, said Dr. Daniel Bernstein, a cardiologist in charge of Earle's transplant care. Bernstein said transplant patients are only prohibited from playing collision sports like football.
``Joelle is an absolute superstar,'' Bernstein said. ``We're hoping his story will increase organ donation awareness.
``Many people think donating organs only give recipients a small advantage. Hopefully when they see Joelle winning races they will realize donations can make a big difference.''
In a rare year in which two of the state's best sprinters came from the Central Coast Section, only one will compete in the section finals.
Valley Christian High's Khrystal Carter, the state leader in the girls 100 meters, qualified easily at the CCS track and field semifinals Saturday at San Jose City College.
But Jefferson's Patrick Holmes, ranked No. 3 in the state in the 100 following a stunning 10.50 at the Sacramento Meet of Champions three weeks ago, failed to advance to Friday's finals at Los Gatos High.
Holmes, who injured his right hamstring just after crossing the finish line at the Peninsula Athletic League finals May 11, finished fifth in his heat in 11.33.
``I knew I wasn't 100 percent,'' said Holmes, whose injury was diagnosed as a pull and slight tear by different doctors. ``But I didn't care. I was just hoping to make some kind of noise.''
Holmes was slowed from the start. He tried pushing out of the blocks with his right leg during practice Friday, but couldn't do it and was forced to switch to his left. The 10.50 never seemed so far away.
Carter, however, was at her best, running a wind-aided 11.67 in the 100, just off the state-leading 11.62 she ran last week at the West Catholic Athletic League finals.
``It totally brought my confidence up,'' Carter said. ``Before, I always had questions about my race. Now, I want 11.5 so badly. That's my focus right now.''
Heart transplant recipient Joelle Earle of Santa Teresa didn't qualify in the boys 100 or the 400 relay, but wasn't disappointed.
``Who cares?'' he said with a huge smile after setting a personal record in the 100 with a wind-aided 11.28. ``Even if I didn't qualify, I'm still happy. I made it this far.''
Further than his mother, Nancy Davis, ever envisioned.
``If it was left to me, I'd put him in a sealed environment,'' she said. ``But however he wants his life to be, I'll honor that.''
Harbor's Julie Dufresne knew she was ready for a big day in the shot put. She unleashed six throws over 45 feet during practice Wednesday -- her personal best was 45-5 -- and had a warm-up toss Saturday of 48 feet, two feet farther than the longest in the state.
Dufresne responded with a toss of 47-0, reclaiming the state lead.