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MIKE GEBHARDT // PAIN IS JUST A STATE OF MIND

Mike Gebhardt doesn't like to dwell on the past.

"Seoul, Barcelona ... I can't remember how I felt going into those Games," he said. "That was yesterday. It was somebody else, not me. Me is now. Right here. Today."

Most athletes with Olympic bronze- and silver-medal performances to their credit would be happy to share a little history. But Gebhardt isn't like most athletes.

At one time, he fit the mold. Dedicated. Competitive. Always striving for the future.

Then in 1992, at the Barcelona Games, something happened to make the Fort Pierce sailor take a closer look at his life.

Gebhardt was one race from taking home the gold medal for board sailing when fate intervened. He was leading by seven points when an unexpected windshift sent the sailor to the back of the pack. The loss of points meant he had to settle for second.

"I was angry," he said. "But eventually I realized that I was doing it all for the wrong reasons."

That realization sent Gebhardt on a spiritual quest. A devout Christian, the 30-year-old began to dabble in Eastern mysticism. He practiced yoga and studied the work of Indian philosopher Sai Baba.

"It's about being more God conscious," he said. "It's about being centered and working on the here and now."

Gebhardt's daily regimen of yoga and meditation has paid big dividends. About 18-months ago, he suffered what many thought would be a career-ending injury.

"I was water skiing and I got my arm caught in the tow rope," he said. "It totally crushed my right biceps."

The muscle was badly damaged, but fortunately, it was not severed.

"I went to a couple of doctors who said everything from "Put it in a cast' to "You'll never sail again'," he said, "But what do they know? They can only go on what they've seen before. They don't know me. I told them, "That is your opinion not mine. It doesn't have anything to do with me.'

"

After the accident, a friend from Gainesville called. .

"He's a surgeon, very God conscious," he said. "He is also a Sai Baba devotee and devout Christian. He just put his hands on me and prayed."

Gebhardt had tried conventional physical therapy and medicine. But in the end, it was Eastern wisdom that helped him deal with the pain.

"Pain is something that we can control, even though we'd like to think it isn't," he said. "Once you get in touch with it, you learn how to turn it off.

"There were times when it hurt so bad, I didn't want to deal with it. ... just cut my arm off," he said. "But pain is just a state of mind. And 14 days after the accident, I was sailing again, which is a miracle in itself."

Gebhardt relied on prayer, meditation and stretching for rehabilitation. He didn't lift weights. He just sailed.

And by the time the Olympic trials rolled around in the spring of '96, Gebhardt was back in medal-winning form. He dominated the 8-day regatta, never finishing worse than third.

But when it was over, and his place on the Olympic team was secured, he had few words for the media.

"I don't know how I feel," he said. "I've learned not to covet things, especially a medal."

His arm still bares the scars of the accident. His right biceps is at least 4 inches smaller than his left.

"At first I think I favored one side over the other," he said. "But now I don't really notice a difference. I don't even think about it anymore. The only time I do is when somebody else brings it up. To me, it is over and done."

The biceps, however, is an important tool for a windsurfer. Boardsailors, can "pump" their sails back and forth to create wind. Strong arms are needed to withstand the rigors of a grueling race.

After the trials, Gebhardt disappeared for a while, spending time with friends in Gainesville who share his interest in the spiritual world.

He returned to Savannah, Ga., recharged and ready to add a gold medal to his collection. If he does, he'll become the first U.S. sailor to win three consecutive medals.

Windsurfing is an extremely individualistic sport. Boardsailors have no crew members or skippers to help them through a tough race.

These sailors need balance, strength, skill and sound tactics to prevail. Rarely is a competitor strong in all four.

As far as Olympians go, Gebhardt is a seasoned veteran. With the Games approaching, he spent the past few weeks sailing, resting and preparing his mind for competition.

"We've been spending a lot of time on equipment," he said. "We want to make sure we are all lined out.

"As for training, we're pretty much in a taper mode," he said a few days ago.

But Gebhardt was hesitant to speculate how he would do the third time around.

"I can't think about something like that," he said. "Today is what matters. Yesterday's gone. Tomorrow? Who knows? I just try to live, be conscious. Otherwise I'm stumbling around stubbing my toe on everything."

Meet the athlete

SPORT: Yachting.

CLASS: Mistral (windsurfer).

AGE: 30.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT: 5-8, 145.

HOMETOWN: Fort Pierce.

YACHT CLUB: Fort Walton.

ACHIEVEMENTS: 1992 Olympic silver medalist, 1992 Tudor Boardsailor of the Year, 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, 1995 Pan American silver medalist, 1987 Pan American gold medalist.

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