Missy Ryan turned in the race of her life one morning at the Atlanta Olympics. She and Karen Kraft placed second in pairs rowing, missing a gold medal by .39 of a second. The race to save a life began that evening. Ryan (who then went by her maiden name, Schwen) was told that she was the best candidate to donate a kidney to her older brother, Michael, who suffered from IgA nephropathy, an autoimmune disease that attacks the renal system. Michael had made it to Atlanta to watch his sister row even though his kidneys had begun shutting down. "I didn't think twice about donating," says Missy. "Rowing again wasn't a consideration." She donated the kidney four weeks after the Games. Her brother is now healthy and in optometry school at Indiana.
Ryan and Kraft both lived in San Francisco but didn't talk comeback for more than a year. "We had unsettled feelings about the close finish in '96," says Ryan, 28. "One day I said, 'So whaddya think?' We asked ourselves, If we don't go back, will we regret it? It was clear we would." In the summer of 1998, Ryan found herself alone at a boat club trying to do six kilometers in 20 minutes on an ergometer machine. "I was fighting my own demons and stopped after 1,500 meters," she says. "I got so angry at myself."
Since October 1999, Ryan and Kraft have been training in Princeton, N.J. They also took jobs in the gardening department of a Home Depot—"Karen works in plants; I work in rakes," Ryan says—that allow them flexible training hours. In July they won the U.S. trials. Ryan draws inspiration from Michael. "When I was four, I climbed a 30-foot pine tree because that's what he did," she says. "I wanted to see the world like my brother."