By Tom Keppeler, Knee1/Body1 Staff
When the largest United States Olympic Team marched into the stadium in Sydney Friday, a walking miracle led them: kayaker Cliff Meidl. Were it not for the jackhammer injury that tore apart his knees and nearly ended his life, Meidl says, he would not even be in the Olympic Games.
Meidl’s saga began in 1986, while working on a construction crew in Los Angeles. He was operating a jackhammer to make room for a water pipeline when it jabbed into three high-power lines that were unmarked, according to the Associated Press. Still holding onto the jackhammer, Meidl met with a powerful surge, 15 times the amount of electricity that runs through an electric chair. The 30,000 volts momentarily tossed him out of the hole, then landed atop the jackhammer, which further injured his knees.
While in the hospital, doctors pondered whether to amputate his severely wounded legs. Meidl’s parents, knowing his resolve, refused the procedure. Meidl suffered three heart attacks during his recovery, and each time his team of doctors resuscitated him. “I remember the initial shock and then blacking out,” he told the AP. “I remember waking up and feeling an incredible pressure on my chest, like a truck ran over it…I asked my parents what had happened, and they said I had had a bad accident.”
Meidl slowly regained strength in his legs. He began walking with the help of parallel bars and a therapist, then in a pool, then eventually on crutches—across the house at first, then eventually across the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was being treated. Three and a half years later, Meidl walked on his own for the first time since the devastating accident, the AP reported.
Meidl, first exposed to kayaking at LA’s Olympic Games in 1984, and inspired by U.S. kayak champion Greg Barton in 1988, developed an interest in the sport out of necessity. Previously an avid soccer player, Meidl yearned to get back into shape. "I realized I couldn't run, so I started in canoe and then kayak paddling," he told the AP. His resolve soon paid off, earning him a win at the Olympic festival in Denver in 1995 and an Olympic bid in Atlanta’s Summer Games the following year.
Meidl, who still walks with a slight limp, says he most likely would never be in the Olympics had it not been for his accident. Now, Meidl, 34, carried the stars and stripes Friday at the front of the 600-plus U.S. team. His teammates voted him as the flag bearer, beating cancer survivor and bicyclist Lance Armstong and women’s soccer star Brandi Chastain. “I was very upset and angry at first, but I believe that in everything you do, you have to maximize yourself and move forward,” he told the AP. “I wouldn't trade anything I've been through if I could. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't had the accident, but I'm proud of myself and proud to be here today.”
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.