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CLIFF MEIDL // A brush with death alters kayaker's life

Cliff Meidl has heard all the jokes _ how it must have been a shocking experience, how electrifying it was, how he's the current champion. He smiles benignly as though hearing them for the first time. A little laugh at his expense can't hurt.

He can laugh, too. Thirty seconds' worth of 30,000 volts _ 15 times the power of the electric chair _ is worth a chuckle or two, as well as some stunned disbelief, when the result is survival.

The miracle is not that Meidl, 30, is a member of the U.S. Olympic four-man kayak team. The miracle is that he is anything more than a memory.

Can he medal in the 1,000-meter

flatwater sprint on Lake Lanier at Gainesville, Ga.? "Well, when you talk about miracles," Meidl said with a grin that rarely leaves his lips, "there are big ones and little ones. All that business about "just being happy to participate,' once you're actually here, it's not enough. I won't be happy to walk away from here without a medal."

In a perverse way, the accident that nearly killed him also guided him toward the Olympics. Canoeing and yachting had piqued his interest when he saw Greg Barton win a couple of gold medals in 1988 and once Meidl got into it _ soccer and cross-country running no longer feasible _ he thrived. It was competitive. And it was rehabilitation.

When he's not paddling around southern California waters near his Redondo Beach home, he is a financial manager, a career he might not have considered had he not been jolted out of his job as an apprentice plumber 10 years ago while working at a Los Angeles construction site, laying down water lines.

The white light

The jackhammer Meidl was using broke through the concrete to three buried live tension wires. They weren't on the blueprints, Meidl said. "They shouldn't have been where they were and they shouldn't have been live."

The surge of electricity welded his hands to the handles. It roared through his arms and, as he put it, "ran all around my body and went out of places here and there. All the damage was exit wounds."

The one man working with him tried in vain to knock Meidl off the jackhammer, then grabbed the compressor hose and wrapped it around Meidl, trying with equal futility to somehow lasso and yank him to safety. After half a minute the interruption in power _ Meidl _ caused the circuit breakers to trip.

The damage was this: One-third of each of his knee joints was burned away. A palm-sized portion on the back of his skull likewise was burned off. A dinner-plate-sized chunk of skin, flesh, muscle and bone was blown away from his left shoulder blade. He lost two toes on his right foot.

"I woke up 14 hours later in the hospital with my parents at my side and all these hoses down my throat," Meidl said. "I'm told I'd had three cardiac arrests. It felt like a truck had run over my chest; when they do CPR they break a lot of rib cartilage."

Had he seen that long tunnel? Had he seen the light at the other end? "Funny thing," Meidl replied, "I've seen a lot of movies with the white light, so I can't say if I saw it or it was my imagination. But I'd like to think I saw it."

"It's electricity'

For several days Meidl fought for his life. For the first few weeks he faced the possibility of having both legs amputated. "Whether I was going to be able to walk again, that wasn't the question," Meidl said. "The major objective was to save my legs. If I'd been confined to a wheelchair, that would have been, well, acceptable."

When the threat of amputation passed, surgeons at UCLA Medical Center removed calf muscles from both legs and transplanted them to the areas burned away on his knees. He also underwent multiple bone and skin grafts and, in succeeding months and years, reconstructive surgery. The job remains unfinished. He wears knee braces and can't stand or walk for more than 20 minutes at a time.

The accident may have left Meidl with a gap or two in his memory. Or maybe not. "I'd prefer to say no," he said, smiling, "but my girlfriend's always saying, "Why don't you remember our anniversary?' or "Why can't you remember this or that?' I just tell her, "Hey, it's electricity.' "

A major achievement

Meidl has no idea why he survived, "except that maybe I was the right age, 20. My heart wasn't too old or too young. But there were times _ a couple of weeks after the accident, a couple of months after, a couple of years _ when I was telling myself it would have been better if I hadn't survived. All the hurdles. All the pain."

The rehabilitation began with Meidl floating in a sterile tank to cleanse the infections. Then came being lifted out of his wheelchair and into a pool to redevelop his muscles and coordination. Then walking again. He lost 50 pounds _ down to 140 _ during the ordeal.

After three years of therapy, Meidl began working with a stationary bicycle, then leg weights. He graduated to swimming and finally paddling an outrigger canoe and then a kayak. It wasn't until 1993 that he was introduced to racing.

Along the way, with his career as a plumber gone (his injuries precluded him from going back), Meidl went to Cal State Long Beach and picked up a degree in investment and financial management.

He decided to take a leave of absence from his job in 1995 and 1996 to hang around the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., "until they threw me out." Actually, Meidl said, he was thinking more about trying for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But his progress was so rapid that he earned a spot in March as an alternate. And when teammate Stein Jorgensen decided three weeks ago not to double in the two-man 500 meters and four-man 1,000 meters, Meidl became a starter in four-man.

"Being here," he said, "this is a major achievement in my life. Then again, so's living."

Meet the athlete

BORN: March 3, 1966, Manhattan Beach, Calif.

RESIDES: Redondo Beach, Calif.

HEIGHT: 6-3. WEIGHT: 190.

SCHOOL: Cal State Long Beach, class of '93, degree in investment and financial management.

EXPERIENCE: Training in canoe/kayak for three years; competing for two.

PERSONAL BESTS: First in four-man kayak 1,000 meters and second in two-man 1,000, 1995 U.S. Olympic Festival; second in two-man 2,500 and third in two-man 1,000, 1996 U.S. Olympic trials.