Posted: Tue February 10, 1998 at 2:28 AM ET
By Michelle Kaufman
KARUIZAWA, Japan -- The news hit Mike Peplinski like a ton of curling stones.
"You're going to need a kidney transplant," the doctor said last summer, and then suggested that November or December would be a good time.
Peplinski's heart sank. He asked if the operation could wait until spring because he was training for the Winter Olympics. Curling was making its Olympic debut, and he wanted so badly to be with his teammates in Japan.
"The doctor looked at me real strange and said, 'Olympics? In what? How could a guy in your condition be an Olympic athlete?'" Peplinski recalled, laughing.
When the sport is curling, anything is possible.
While curling requires tremendous skill, it doesn't require great strength or stamina. The most aerobic activity curlers do is sweep the ice. All of the U.S. curlers have full-time jobs. There's a father of four who works in a paper mill and lists "meatloaf and cheeseburgers" as his favorite foods. There's a pressman, an engineer, a maintenance worker, and Peplinski, a junior high geography teacher in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Peplinski, who turns 24 Wednesday, suffers from idiopathic membranous nephropathy, a rare kidney disease that doesn't allow him to retain protein. Every passing day, his kidneys get weaker. They currently function at 23 percent capacity. His mother, Rita, will be his donor, and the operation is scheduled for late May.
"She gave me life once, and now she's going to give me life again," he said.
Rita Peplinski, reached in Gellsville, Wisconsin, said she has no qualms about donating her kidney, even though the operation often is more grueling for the donor than the recipient.
"Any mother would do the same for her child," she said. "I thought about it while taking a walk, and I got a message from somewhere that this is what I should do."
She and husband Hubert won't be in the arena today when the U.S. plays Switzerland and England. The trip was too long and expensive, she said. But they expect victories because it's Mike's birthday. He anticipates the same.
"I've always been very successful on my birthday," he said. "For three straight years, I won a big curling game on my birthday, and I hope that happens again. It's been such a struggle to get here, and it would be great to reach the medal podium."
Peplinski first felt symptoms of the disease his sophomore year at Vitero College. He was a third baseman on the baseball team and noticed that his legs began to swell above his socks after practices. He also felt fatigued quicker.
"I was never very fast, but first base seemed farther and farther away," he said.
He went to the doctor and discovered his kidneys were at 80 percent capacity, and they were only going to get worse. He quit baseball and turned his attention to curling, which he has played since fourth grade. Peplinski played high school football, basketball and baseball, but would often miss games for curling tournaments. His friends thought it was weird, but Peplinski said curling was addicting.
"It's a great sport, very much like golf," he said. "You can improve your delivery, like golfers work on their swings, and you work on consistency in your shot, like putting. I never could have been Cal Ripken or Michael Jordan, but a guy like me can reach the pinnacle of this sport."
He couldn't even describe how excited he was to march in the Opening Ceremony, except to say, "We curlers made sure to be two rows in front of Tara Lipinski so we could get some air time on CBS." (Curling competition will not be shown on CBS.)
It's near the end of practice and Peplinski, the team's vice skip, is crouched on the ice yelling "Hurry hard! Hurry hard!" as teammates hurriedly sweep the way for the twirling stone. It isn't until he gets off the ice, pale and out of breath, that you realize something is wrong.
Peplinski doesn't participate in the team's off-ice training, and he has to keep careful tabs on his diet.
Though the curling venue is a 30-minute train ride from Nagano, reporters have made the trek to interview Peplinski. They ask about the rules of curling, and about how he proposed to his wife Michelle by spelling out "Will you marry me?" in brooms and stones. But mostly, they ask about his kidneys.
How many medications does he take? Four.
How weak does he feel after games? Very.
Does he need dialysis? No.
Does he worry about dying? No.
Will he return to curling after the operation? Hopefully.
He answers each question patiently.
"As long as I'm a story and it brings people to curling, then that's OK by me," he said.
Michelle Kaufman writes for the Miami Herald.
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