– How science and friendship changed the life of a future Olympian –
Nearly two billion viewers from around the world watched American kayaker Cliff Meidl lead his teammates onto the field at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Many had learned the inspiring story of this courageous young man from Manhattan Beach, California. It was the culmination of a dream that involved faith, science and friendship, and made possible by a tremendous support system.
It all started 14 years earlier, in 1986. While working on a construction site, Cliff jackhammered into three buried power lines and received a massive electrical shock, sending approximately 30,000 volts of electricity through his body. The severe shock stopped his heart, but he was revived by fast-acting firefighters and first responders — the first of many to save his life. The accident had disintegrated most of Cliff’s functional knee bones, muscles in both legs, and severely burned his back, head, and foot. His local doctors had scheduled him for bi-lateral above-knee amputations. The night before his scheduled amputations, Cliff’s mother had learned of a Plastic and Reconstructive surgeon named Malcolm Lesavoy, who had been performing radically innovative surgical procedures and immediately reached out to him. Dr. Lesavoy visited Cliff and agreed to transfer him to UCLA where he performed limb preservation surgery.
Dr. Lesavoy saved Cliff’s legs through complex muscle transfers and skin grafts. Beyond that, he became a vital member of his support system — constantly motivating Cliff as he faced this traumatic, life-altering experience. Meidl has said, “It’s amazing how every little thing in life becomes so important when faced with extreme adversity. Dr. Lesavoy was my hero and mentor.”
It turns out that it was the darkest moment of Cliff’s life that led directly to the remarkable achievement of becoming an Olympic athlete. He went from receiving encouragement from his now longtime friend, Dr. Lesavoy, to becoming a beacon of hope and inspiration himself. Once Cliff found the fire within that propelled him forward towards success, there was no stopping him.