Cliff Meidl - An Olympic Competitor's Shocking Story

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - October 2000

In November, 1986, 20 year old construction worker Cliff Meidl was in a pit at a work site trying to break up a concrete slab with a jackhammer. He did not know that the concrete housed an unmarked power line carrying thousands of volts of electricity. When the tip of Cliff's jackhammer punctured the power line, 30,000 volts of electricity exploded through him. The charge was three times more powerful than that used for capital punishment in an electric chair. The explosion was so powerful it exploded out through the back of his head, his shoulder, his knee caps, his foot and blew him out of the hole. He lay dead on the ground, his heart stopped, his clothes smoldering, his entire body singed and burned.

Amazingly, a firefighter quick to arrive at the scene was able to revive him using CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation). Cliff's heart stopped twice more in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but the paramedics resuscitated him each time.

Cliff spent the next several months in the hospital while his body healed from the terrible burns. "One-third of both my knee joints was burned away and two toes were burned off," says Cliff. "I had such extensive injuries that the doctors said they would have to amputate my legs." Fortunately, one surgeon was able to save his legs with a special operation.

Cliff left the hospital in a wheelchair and began the long process of rehabilitation, which included ten more surgeries. Before his accident, Cliff had been a runner. "I was heartbroken because they said I would never walk again." Cliff finally had to admit that he couldn't be a runner, but he didn't give up. He worked hard to build his strength and was eventually able to walk with braces on his legs. "It was pretty tough," he says.

As part of his rehabilitation, he began to canoe and kayak. He explains that he took up kayaking after being inspired by seeing Greg Barton, a man born with two club feet, win two kayak gold medals in 1988.

Cliff's hard work and determination led him to become one of the best kayakers in the world. He competed at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, and qualified to represent the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Cliff's spirit and led to him being chosen to be the United States flag bearer at Olympic Opening Ceremonies, an honor that normally goes to multiple Olympians or gold medalists. Meidl was chosen ahead of two-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, known for his remarkable recovery from cancer. Meidl led the U.S. athletes into the Olympic stadium in Sydney carrying the American flag. He walked proudly showing almost no sign of a limp from his damaged knees.

"This is an incredible honor," the 34-year-old Meidl said. "I was so proud and honored to be able to represent the USA and to lead the entire delegation into the stadium."

Meidl did not win a medal at the Olympics in Sydney, but he is a winner in other ways. "I have enormous physical limitations in my legs," he says. "The damage is done, and there's no coming back from that. But the accident changed the person I am. It made me a stronger person mentally and physically. I don't think I would have had the will and determination to make it to the Olympics without going through an experience like this."

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