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Two-time Olympic speed skating medalist plans comeback from injury

October 20, 1997

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Two-time Olympic medalist Nikki Ziegelmeyer was skating at 35 mph training for the upcoming winter games in Nagano, Japan, when she careened into a padded wall.

That was two weeks ago.

On Sunday, moving with the aid of a walker, Ziegelmeyer tired after ambling just a few yards. Still, after the accident in Lake Placid that fractured vertebrae and sent bone fragments into her spinal canal, the 22-year-old was talking comeback and aiming for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

``The first thing that went through my mind was that I hoped I wouldn’t be paralyzed,″ Ziegelmeyer said Sunday at Albany Medical Center.

``It’s a little scary, but I plan to get back on my skates and have no doubt that I can get back into competitive form,″ she said.

Surgery 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 Nikki 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 looks a little like roller derby. It made its Olympic debut in 1992.

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. 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 Patrick Wentland, her former coach, and ask for a tryout.

He saw her performance and welcomed her to the team.

``Since her comeback, she has been one of the top skaters on the team,″ Wentland said from the Olympic practice grounds in Colorado Springs. ``When she was young, she really didn’t put that much energy into the sport. She really didn’t devote herself until last year.″

Ziegelmeyer won a bronze medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics and a silver medal in the 1992 games.

Her second 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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