Cycling was his lifesaver

Winnipeg Free Press – PRINT EDITION

When he heard doctors say, ‘this one won’t make it,’ he fought to prove them wrong

By: Anne-Marie Garcia

HAVANA, Cuba — Damian Lopez was 13 when he tried to untangle his kite from electrical wires dangling over a street corner and accidentally touched a high-voltage cable.

The 13,000 volts that coursed through his body cost him both his forearms, melted much of the skin from his face and left him in a coma from which doctors predicted he would never emerge.

“I could hear people saying, ‘This one won’t make it.’ But I fought and I came out of it,” Lopez said.

After four months in the hospital, Lopez went home with injuries so severe he had trouble walking, eating, speaking and even closing his eyes.

Twenty-two years later, Lopez is close to realizing an unlikely dream by representing Cuba at the 2012 London Paralympics in cycling, the sport he says kept him from drowning in self-pity and despair.

“After the accident I didn’t want to leave the house, but some friends came looking for me to play. That was key,” Lopez said of his return to a go-go life of soccer, pigeon-raising, chess, pool, motorcycles and, most importantly, bicycles.

“It’s the same today. I don’t stop moving. I think I still have electricity in my arms,” he joked.

It’s been a long, tough road to pedal, and Lopez said he owes a debt to many people, including an American woman named Tracy Lea, who raised money for equipment and airfare and arranged to fly him to New York for free facial reconstruction surgery.

“I don’t have the words to thank Tracy. I owe her so much,” Lopez said.

The two met in 2003 when Lea visited Cuba for a race where both participated. Lea recalled how she, a self-described “pathetic bike mechanic,” was struggling to change a tire trackside when Lopez appeared out of nowhere.

“Here Damian is a bilateral amputee at the elbow and he comes over and helps me,” Lea told The Associated Press.

“He took the Allen key, it’s shaped like a T, and he just put it between his stumps … and put the five bolts in, and then proceeded to put the wheel on my bike and check the chain tension, and off I went.”

“I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is embarrassing.’ ”

A friendship struck up between Lopez and Lea, the mother of another disabled cyclist, and almost immediately she began to think about getting him help.

Lea, a 57-year-old consultant to non-profit groups living in Taneytown, Md., got in touch with the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction in New York.

Despite decades of poor relations between Cuba and the United States, she was finally able to fly him to New York in 2011 for four excruciating surgeries that cost nearly $500,000, performed pro-bono by the Foundation. Doctors worked to reconstruct his nose, chin, mouth and eyelids. Today, he can eat more easily and close his left eye, which makes it much easier to handle the rush of air when cycling at speed.

Practically as soon as the last operation was completed in June, Lopez was back on the bike. In race after race, his times have steadily improved and he’s beating less-disabled competitors.

Lopez’s life has a clear before-and-after date: Nov. 6, 1989, the day of his accident.

Returning home from the hospital was like starting from zero. Gradually he recovered his strength and began walking again.

Then one day he tried out a bicycle. He fell off a few times, prompting his mother to beg neighbours to help keep him from riding for fear he could kill himself. But Lopez kept on pedalling and learned to steer with the points of his elbows.

By the age of 18 he was already taking part in street races in Havana.

“Since I was little, I have always liked sports. I played soccer, I rode the bicycle and dreamed of the Olympic Games. That helped me greatly, physically and psychologically,” Lopez said.

As Lopez talked emotionally about how cycling helped him rediscover his will to live, his sudden eagerness to cut the interview short spoke more than his words. Lopez had a date, he confessed.

“Finding a girlfriend is not easy, but a man doesn’t have to be handsome on the outside but rather within,” he said. “I can die now. I know what it is to love.”

— The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2012 J16