October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

Cliff Meidl’s Olympic dream began the day he died. He was 20 years old, a construction worker on a job in Hawthorne, Calif., when he jackhammered into a buried power line. The accident sent 30,000 volts of electricity—about 15 times the voltage of the electric chair—shooting through him. “I only remember one huge surge of bombarding power and then I was out,” says Meidl, 34. “I was told my heart stopped three times. I was dead for about two minutes while the paramedics did CPR.” The jolt was enough to kill several men, but somehow Meidl survived. “I guess my heart just didn’t want to stop,” he says. “I had more to do in my life.”

What Meidl is doing with his second chance seems miraculous to everyone but him: He’s gunning for an Olympic gold medal in the sport of flatwater kayaking. A physical wreck for years after the accident—which blew a hole in his skull, nearly forced the amputation of both legs and led to moments of such pain and despair that, he says, “I didn’t want to live”—Meidl found salvation in a fiberglass canoe, paddling himself toward mental and physical recovery. His comeback took a truly Hollywood turn when a beaming Meidl carried the American flag and led the U.S. delegation into Sydney’s Olympic stadium for the opening ceremonies Sept. 15—an honor few believed he would ever be in a position to accept. “Did I think he was going to be an Olympian? I’d be nuts to have thought that,” says Dr. Malcolm Lesavoy, the UCLA reconstructive surgeon who performed the operation that saved Meidl’s legs. “I had my doubts about his future, but his focus is like a laser.”

Part of the reason Meidl survived is that he was in exceptional shape. The older son of Helmut, an airline customer-service representative, and Senta, a store manager from whom Helmut was divorced in 1995, Meidl was raised in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he starred on his high school track and soccer teams. He was 15 when he first tried canoeing, and he stuck with it through his teen years, when he postponed college to work as an apprentice plumber and, later, on a construction crew.

Then on Nov. 19, 1986, the day of the accident, everything changed. Meidl woke up in the burn ward of the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City “too doped-up on morphine to focus,” he says. He had extensive burns on his back, shoulders and buttocks, but his legs were a particular disaster area: The current had seared away nearly all the flesh on his knees. Three weeks and 11 surgeries later—one involving the removal of two toes—his doctors felt they needed to amputate Meidl’s legs just above the knees. “My parents fought hard against it, thank God,” he recalls. “I have them to thank for my legs.”

Instead Dr. Lesavoy took strips of muscle from Meidl’s calves and wrapped them upward to bolster his knees. “That was the easy part,” says Lesavoy. “Cliff went through all the hell.” Meidl, who received what he calls a “meager” settlement for the accident, walked with braces for two years while enduring painful therapy; he also saw a psychotherapist to help him focus on his future, not his past. “It became a sort of competition with myself,” he says, “to get back to normal as soon as possible.” That defy-the-odds attitude “is what saved him,” says his brother Norm, 29. “He brought a wheelchair home, but he never used it. Too stubborn.”

Then two years after nearly dying, Meidl began canoeing again. Seeking a different challenge, he switched to kayaking in 1992 and won three medals at the ’95 Olympic Festival in Denver. Meidl made the Olympic squad the following year in Atlanta (he didn’t win any medals) and for two years has been training up to eight hours a day to prepare for the four events in which he’ll compete in Sydney starting Sept. 26. “He eats, sleeps and drinks this stuff,” says girlfriend Toni Zorich, 29, an escrow officer at a real estate firm. “He’s a miracle just being alive, and here he is shooting for gold.”

Win or lose, Meidl—a financial analyst for a real-estate development firm who likes to ride his Harley around Redondo Beach, where he lives—cherishes the thrill of carrying the U.S. flag. “I was nervous,” he admits. But “as we walked, lots of people came up to congratulate me.” And why not: Few athletes in Sydney had to travel quite as far as Meidl to get there. “If anyone had told me when I was lying in the burn ward that I’d be in the Olympics, I’d have thought they were high on morphine,” he says. “But sometimes life can be stranger than fiction.”

Alex Tresniowski

Janet Kinosian in Los Angeles and Cynthia Wang in Sydney

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