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Two-time Olympic speed skating medalist plans comeback from injury

October 20, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Nikki Ziegelmeyer ambles down the hospital corridor with the help of a walker, though she tires after several yards. Only her T-shirt and cap, bearing the logos of her athletic sponsors, suggest that she is making her first steps toward a speed skating comeback at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Just two weeks ago, the 22-year-old, two-time Olympic medalist was skating at 35 mph in preparation for February’s winter games in Nagano, Japan, when she careened into a padded wall at the skating oval in Lake Placid. She sustained a potentially career-ending spinal injury. The crash fractured vertebrae and sent bone fragments into her spinal canal.

``The first thing that went through my mind was that I hoped I wouldn’t be paralyzed,″ she said Sunday.

Surgery at Albany Medical Center reconstructed her vertebrae and with rehabilitation, doctors say she should regain full movement. Full recovery may take until next spring, said Dr. Bradford Stephens, the medical director of the Lake Placid Sports Medicine Center. If she makes a comeback, she would need to train for a year to regain Olympic form, ruling out Nagano, he said.

Ziegelmeyer’s mother encouraged her to skate after a pediatrician noticed hyperactivity and advised that she become involved in a sport. After trying roller skating and swimming, she settled on short track speed skating, where competitors race around a 111-meter ice oval. With crowded confines and frequent lane changes, the sport resembles roller derby. It made its Olympic debut in 1992.

A coach for the Olympic team who has known Ziegelmeyer for over 10 years said if she can manage a comeback her future appears bright.

``When she was young, she really didn’t put that much energy into the sport. She really didn’t devote herself until last year,″ skating team leader Patrick Wentland said. Ziegelmeyer won a bronze medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics and a silver medal in the 1992 Games.

But her skating career hasn’t always been easy. In 1994, the 18-year-old announced she would retire from the sport to try to live a ``real life″ and pay for legal fees in a dispute with U.S. Speedskating. She ran up legal bills in a successful fight against U.S. Speedskating over code of conduct violations. She now calls the issue a ``misunderstanding.″

``I wanted a job, a boyfriend, a high school experience. But after a while, I realized those things weren’t as good as I thought,″ she said.

While attending broadcasting school, Ziegelmeyer realized she wanted to return to skating and she began to train again in secret.

``She wanted to make sure that she still had what it took to compete without making a public thing out of it, so I would take her to practice early in the morning so no one would know,″ her mother recalled.

Her hometown of Imperial, Mo. lacks an ice skating facility, so Ziegelmeyer would in-line skate around a high school track and record her times until she gained enough confidence to call Wentland, her former coach, and ask for a tryout.

``Since her comeback, she has been one of the top skaters on the team,″ Wentland said. ``She finally realized how talented she is.″

This comeback will require more than shaking off teenage ennui. But she remains confident.

``Before, I came back to prove something to myself and everybody else, and I did that,″ she said. ``Another comeback is for my own sanity and for the love of the game.″

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