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Paralympic gold medalist cheers on fellow amputee in London Olympics

Without the tragedy, Danny Andrews might never have tasted the glory.

It's odd to think of it that way, because I recall so clearly the sadness that washed over this newsroom in 1996 when we learned Danny's leg would have to come off.

He played soccer with our clerk's grandson in Hudson. One night a boy from the other team crashed the net and broke Danny's leg. Bad enough, but then something went wrong beneath the cast. Doctors had to amputate his left leg just below the knee.

In the hospital, as the 14-year-old struggled to come to grips with what had just happened, he got a phone call. Dennis Oehler of Long Island, N.Y., shared his story of losing a leg in a car crash at age 24. Oehler not only adapted, he excelled at athletics and understood the rapidly changing technology of prosthetics. He had won four gold medals at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, and now he was inviting Danny and his family to watch him run at the Paralympics in Atlanta.

The act of kindness showed the boy he could still set lofty physical goals. Danny proved his mettle and inspired an entire community when just two years later, he was back playing soccer at Gulf High School. In 2000, his senior year, he earned all-conference honors but then did something really amazing. Like the man who called his hospital that day, Danny Andrews trained hard and qualified as a runner for the USA Paralympic team. This community came together to help Danny's mom, dad and sister watch him from the stands at the Olympic stadium in Sydney, Australia.

Danny won a gold medal.

Four years later, he won three more gold medals at the Athens Paralympic Games. He also earned a degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Miami, where he ran track — the only amputee in Division 1 college athletics.

Last week, as another so-called "disabled'' athlete prepared to make history competing at the London Olympics, I caught up with Danny by phone from his new hometown — Los Angeles. He's 30 now, working as an engineer for 3M. He's in a serious relationship with Ashley Gadson, a lawyer and former track star at the University of Arizona. He plays on a local indoor soccer team to keep in shape and enjoys snowboarding in the winter.

He had figured to make a career in prosthetics but put that aside after his final Paralympics four years ago in Beijing. "Prosthetics had been part of my everyday life,'' he said, "and I just decided I didn't want to make it my work.''

And while he no longer competes, Danny has followed closely the story of Oscar Pistorius, 25, the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics. They became friends during the Paralympics Games in Beijing and Athens.

Pistorius was born without the fibula in both legs. His limbs were amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old. He earned his way onto the South African team in the individual 400 meters and the 4x400 relay, despite protests by some that his Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fiber blades gave him an unfair advantage.

"There is no evidence that shows he has an advantage,'' Danny said, "and while his times are good enough to get him on the Olympic team, they're still a few seconds behind what it will take to win. Oscar is a great guy and his story should inspire people everywhere.''

Danny doesn't get back to New Port Richey much, although his mother, Luann, is still a nurse at Florida Hospital North Pinellas in Tarpon Springs. His dad, Bill, lives in South Carolina.

Danny says he has no regrets about the accident that took his leg. "Of course I'd rather it didn't happen,'' he said, "but I feel really blessed. I got amazing support. I got to see the world. I've just been really lucky.''

He counts one particular week among his finest. When he returned from the Athens Games, the Department of Defense arranged for him to spend a week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center working with soldiers who had lost limbs in combat. He recognizes a cruel irony: that war has fueled the advancements in prosthetics technology.

Just as young Danny had been given hope by a man who had lost a leg, he told his remarkable story to soldiers. He told them how he had learned to run again, how his life had once again become rich and happy.

"I felt privileged,'' he said, "and humbled.''

Paralympic gold medalist cheers on fellow amputee in London Olympics 08/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 4, 2012 11:59am]
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