By Beth Karlin
August 31, 1998 12:00 PM

Astride her silver speed racer, Susan Silberman sailed up Chicago’s bustling Elston Avenue in a small pack of cyclists training for a 470-mile trek to raise money for AIDS services. Feeling confident, she chatted with her buddies as they rolled past the commercial buildings on the northwest side of the city. Then swooping around a biker who had stopped to free a loose shoelace from his pedal, she passed a green light and entered an intersection. Suddenly the driver of a pickup truck barreling down the cross street smashed into Silberman, sending her flying onto his hood and into the windshield before she tumbled to the pavement. Twelve days and eight operations later, Silberman, a personal fitness trainer, lost the lower half of her left leg to gangrene—and part of her mind to pain and anger. “It was like, ‘Wake me up from this nightmare,’ ” she recalls two years after the mid-1996 crash. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a normal life again.”

Silberman, now 30, would not only learn to walk again with the aid of a prosthetic leg, she would also return to complete the six-day Minneapolis-St. Paul to Chicago trek she had been training for. After a failed attempt in 1997 and nine months of intensive training this year, in which she often pedaled 200 miles a week, Silberman crossed the finish line on July 11 and flashed her trademark big grin. “When doctors said I wouldn’t run or ride a bike for two years, I considered that a personal challenge,” says Silberman, who will raise more than $12,000 for AIDS this year in five rides covering more than 2,200 miles. “The only limitations I have are those I place on myself.”

She put on more than just mileage during her two-year, life-altering journey. Silberman reconciled with her estranged father, Harold, 60, gained new self-assurance and last fall found romance in Rancho Bernardo, Calif., with another biking enthusiast, software engineer Jeff Wang, 31. She has also served as an inspiration to others. “Susan has every right to be bitter,” says Kevin Honeycutt, national director of the AIDS Rides. “Yet she has chosen not to go down that path. She gives others confidence about who they are.”

Physical activity has been a crucial part of Silberman’s life since she was a child in South Bend, Ind. The younger of two children born to Sheila, now 57 and a homemaker, and Harold, who owned an auto salvage business, she studied ballet and gymnastics and played Softball. “I wasn’t a tomboy, but I wasn’t a prima donna either,” she says. After graduating from James Whitcomb Riley High School in 1986, she entered the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Restless after two years, she moved to the Chicago area to study cooking at the Culinary School of Kendall College in Evanston, Ill. But a 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at a local patisserie put her off baking for good.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in education at National-Louis University in Evanston, Silberman worked as a child-development specialist with infants and toddlers for two years. For recreation she turned to physical exercise and earned a brown belt in Hapkido, an aggressive Korean martial art. “It gave me confidence,” she says. “I could handle myself in any situation.” She also began lifting weights and, before long, could leg-press 400 pounds. “I was a rock-hard 125 pounds with just 9 percent body fat,” she says. In May of 1995 she left teaching and a year later found what seemed her ideal job, as a personal trainer. “I was so proud of her,” says Silberman’s mom, Sheila Gordon. “She seemed to have more direction.”

Indeed, Silberman can’t recall a happier time. Sadly, one month later Robert Carpenter, 48, a steelworker, crashed into her, robbing her of her newfound confidence and almost her life. The crash shattered her thigh bone in three places and severed an artery, cutting off blood to her lower left leg, which was later amputated.

On Nov. 7, 1997, Carpenter was sentenced to a year in jail for aggravated reckless driving. He served five months. Silberman still bridles when someone refers to the incident as an accident. “I was the victim of a crime,” she says. Carpenter, who never contacted Silberman, now tells PEOPLE he is “very, very sorry.”

As great as her loss was, Silberman feels that some good resulted from the tragedy. For one thing, she found a new determination. Shortly after she lost her leg, she made a pact with two AIDS fund-raisers who visited her at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center. Frustrated by the doctors’ grim prognosis, she swore she’d ride again. “It was,” she says, “an opportunity to finish what I had started.”

Also, as she lay in her hospital bed, she reunited with her father, who admits that he had always favored his son Richard, 34, now a freelance journalist. In fact, father and daughter had rarely seen each other since Silberman’s parents divorced in 1986 (each has remarried). The minute they heard about the crash, her mother flew to Chicago from her home in Las Vegas and Harold raced two hours by car from South Bend to the hospital. When he learned on arrival that his daughter might not survive, “he just sobbed,” recalls Fred Sherman, Susan’s uncle. “I could almost read his mind, that he had lost his chance to be a father.”

Harold spent 17 hours a day at the hospital. “He made it clear that he loved me, and I found a whole other side of him,” Silberman says. Later, he even joined the crew that set up camp for cyclists on Susan’s Twin Cities to Chicago ride. “Sleeping in a tent is not my forte,” says her father, “but it was worth it to spend time with her.”

Two months after the amputation, Susan was walking with a prosthetic leg, but it took many more months to rebuild her emotional strength. She was comforted by her uncle Fred and his wife, Ina, who cared for her for more than a year in their Wilmette, Ill., home not far from doctors supervising her recuperation. “They were the greatest,” she says of her aunt and uncle, crediting them with keeping up her spirits and helping her learn to walk again. Still, “I felt I was damaged goods, that no one would want me,” she says.

Nearly one year after the crash, she traveled to the kinder climes of San Diego to train. There, through a mutual friend, she would also meet Jeff Wang. They grew close quickly, and later that year she moved into his Mediterranean-style two-bedroom house. “What attracted me to him was that he asked matter-of-fact questions,” she says. “He wanted to look at my leg and learn about me.”

Too many people still look away out of misplaced pity, says Silberman, adding, “My leg is my badge of courage.” When her AIDS Ride odyssey ends Oct. 11 in Dallas, she may give up long-distance riding to develop confidence-building programs in California for others who have lost limbs. Her basic message will be that life doesn’t have to change. “I walk, run, skip, hop and ride my bike,” she says. And as Silberman’s family reassured her when she felt incomplete, “My personality is not lodged in my left foot.”

Beth Karlin

Lisa Newman in Washington, D.C., Lorna Grisby in Chicago and Lorenzo Benet in San Diego