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 came 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 London Paralympics in cycling, the sport that 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 said.
It has been a long, tough road to pedal, and Lopez said he owes a debt to many people, including a US woman named Tracy Lea, who raised money for equipment and airfare and arranged to bring 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 in which both participated. Lea recalled how Lea, 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 said in a telephone interview. “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, Maryland, got in touch with the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction in New York.
Despite decades of poor relations between Cuba and the US, she was finally able to bring him to New York last year for four excruciating surgeries that cost nearly US$500,000, performed free of charge by the Foundation.
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 is beating less-disabled competitors.
Lopez finished 15th out of 20 in his category in the 1km time trial at last month’s world championships of paracycling in Los Angeles, and 19th in the pursuit.
“I can still improve my times,” said Lopez, now 35.
Even with better results, he started training too late to qualify automatically for the Paralympic games, and thus must seek a wild-card entry from international cycling officials.
The Cuban Cycling Federation is supporting Lopez’s bid for an invitation, and Lea said an answer is expected around the middle of next month.
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 neighbors to help keep him from riding for fear he could kill himself. However, Lopez kept on pedaling 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.
Since last summer, Lopez has been part of Cuba’s disabled cycling team and from Monday to Friday lives in a room near a decaying state-run cycling track just outside the capital, where he practices daily.
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 said.
“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.”
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