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Disabled athletes excel at sports and game of life

SOLDIER HOLLOW — A fan at the Disabled Biathlon World Cup walked past biathlete Josef Gieser of Germany and raised his palm for a little soul slap.

"Gimme five," the fellow said.

Gieser jumped up to deliver a rigorous thwacking sound. A gremlin grin creased his face.

"I give you two!" he cried.

"That was a good one, huh?" he said, eyes shining at his joke.

It was a great moment for capturing the unbridled spirit of the disabled cup competition because "two" is the most Gieser can give in the hand-slap department.

One of the "thalidomide babies" cropping up in profusion in the '60s from mothers who took the drug while pregnant, Josef was born with a 6-inch appendage on his left side, punctuated by one jagged finger.

On the other side, a similarly abbreviated arm ends in a two-fingered crook much like a fleshy slingshot.

Yet Gieser, 39, from Hertzlake, Germany, chooses to compete in a sport relying, not only on legs, but arms. Biathlon.

That's because, while "two" is the maximum he can give hand-wise, heart- and mind-wise, his potential is unlimited.

"I have no problems in life," he said of supposed physical limitations. "This is all normal for me. When I see people who have problems, I go to help them."

That attitude is pretty much universal among the athletes Salt Lake City will see in the 2002 Paralympics.

Exuberance. Skill. Refusal to accept defeat. A stone love affair with sports.

"With no sports, I like this," Gieser said, drooping head and eyes.

"Ich mu Sport haben," he said.

I must have sports. As most anyone competing here agrees.

Gieser clomped his room-key card in his teeth and inserted it into the door.

Inside he got a mouthful of T-shirt, writhed out of it, then chomped and wiggled into a fresh one.

He was having his picture taken with his custom-made rifle and wanted to look good.

Back outside, prone on the ground behind the rifle he uses in biathlon, he explained how he designed the rig on a computer. A ring is attached to a string attached to the trigger.

"I pull the ring — so — and, 'pow,' " he said, dry-shooting the rifle.

Shooting, in fact, is the strong part of Josef's game.

"Usually, I am zero," he said, meaning no misses out of 10 shots at the target.

His father, Heinrich, four brothers and sisters, all are outstanding hunters, he explained.

"Me, too," he said, beaming.

There's not much Josef isn't good at, including expanding the range of his abilities. He used to do things like writing with his feet.

"Now, hands," he said, dropping down on one knee, clenching a notebook to his thigh with his chin. Pinching the pen firmly between his three fingers, he whipped out a perfectly legible "Gieser," to demonstrate how the "i" came before the "e."

Josef swam, alpine skied and played soccer since age 6. Lately, he took up in-line skating and bicycling.

In an era when some pro athletes grouse about being chauffeured to a practice, Gieser routinely drives his own foot-operated Volkswagen 700 kilometers to train in the Black Forest.

Josef loves the travel of elite athletes — Philippines, Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden. In Nagano, his best finish was fifth in the biathlon.

"No good. I get sick. I am feeble," he said.

It's about the only time anyone's said that about Josef Gieser.

Willie Stewart was working on the roof of the Watergate Towers building in Washington, D.C., helping fix the air conditioning.

"I guess Bob Dole was getting a little warm in there," cracked Stewart, 39, Redlands, Calif., now a member of the U.S. disabled cross country ski team.

Stewart was working construction part time while he was a wrestler on the University of Maryland team, and the next thing he was grappling with was a rope. Fellow workers were using the rope to drag old construction debris off the roof. The rope became entangled around Stewart's upper left arm.

"Zip-zap. Like that it was gone," Stewart said.

At first the blood was everywhere.

"Like a fire hose," he said. "Then I stuffed the bicep up inside and it rolled into a knot, cutting off the bleeding."

What followed was an Indy Jones dash for help. He spied a crane pan, used to lift materials to the roof. Falling on it, he lowered himself to the street.

Hitting the ground, he took one look at snarled D.C. traffic and decided his best bet was on foot.

"Dashing between cars, some wild, crazed idiot," he said. He ran one mile to George Washington Hospital.

"I woke up and saw the surgery lights and went, 'Aw, crap, it's not a dream,' " he said.

After the amputation, he was told to concentrate on matters of the mind. Good grades, great job. He brooded on that for three years.

But he'd been a full-bore rugby player — "elite, international, brutal, hoof-scraping, rip-snorting rugby."

He went back to it.

"Sports gave me a quality of life worth calling a life," he said.

He captained the Washington, D.C., Rugby Club team that set a record by going undefeated 10 years in the rough Potomac Rugby Union.

"I became a better player than ever. Guys ran into that stump — 'Ow!' I learned to catch one hand better than two-handed. Better focus," he said.

He became an alpine adaptive ski instructor in Colorado, teaching from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then playing rugby and training for marathons. Last year in the popular Marine Marathon in D.C., out of approximately 20,000 runners, Stewart finished 22nd. He's training for two full-blown ironman triathlons.

Along the way, he became interested in elite disabled skiing.

"There was a time when we tended to brush disabled people into a corner. I might be doing the same thing if an anvil hadn't fallen on me," he said. "Now I see all the disabled ever ask is access and opportunity. Just swirl us all in a big pot and let it fly."

Stewart has never "podiumed." His best shot was six seconds off a bronze in a World Cup event in Lillehammer.

"Those one-armed skiers are Tarzans. They are so tough," Stewart said.

If they're tough enough to fight off a guy like Willie Stewart, they know they're tough.

For much of her life growing up in the small town of Villard de Lans, near Grenoble, France, Anne Floriet, 37, liked the fact she could hide her physical disabilities.

She was born with a rare condition that left the right side of her body underdeveloped. The right leg is telescoped below the knee and eight inches shorter than the left. The right arm is twisted and six inches shorter than the left.

Her fingers are a mass of knots.

"The bones are fragile. They break easily and don't heal properly," she said.

None of it has kept her from an active life built around playing the trumpet and drums as a musical therapist, watercolor artist, winning a European disabled swimming championship, learning dressage and becoming a world-class biathlete.

She won a silver medal in biathlon in the Nagano Paralympics.

"A handicap is nothing in sports. Just different," she said.

Proudly walking across the deck at the Soldier Hollow Legacy Lodge, she demonstrated no noticeable limp.

"That's with my ski leg on. My walking leg, I do even better," she said.

But now it's not about hiding her physical birthrights.

"I like to show what we can do," she said.

Since her right arm is too short to reach the trigger holding a rifle conventionally, she rigs a small supporting stand and fires with the left arm.

"Usually I am a calm shooter. That is why I manage to win, when other girls are faster skiers," she said, adding she nailed all 10 targets in Nagano.

Engaged to a French horn player, the father of her 2-year-old son, Auguste, Floriet is looking forward to married life and pushing more envelopes.

"The only thing I really hate is when able-bodied people say, 'Oh, I could never do what you do.' Well, don't blame me for never trying. Go out and learn to excel.

"The best part of sports is finding out what your limits are. To me, the more you push, the more you never find them."

In a way, life was better under the former Soviet Union for a totally blind athlete such as Viktor Zhukouski, 30, of Molodechno, Belarus.

"We were a mighty nation, and we had very good facilities for visually impaired with money from the Ministry of Sport," Zhukouski said through his interpreter and coach, Mikalai Shudzeika.

So would it be better to be competing here as a cross country skier for the Soviet Union?

"We are here, and it is completely normal," Zhukouski said, drumming his fingers idly on a picnic table in the sun on a patio at Homestead Resort.

"Sitting here at a place like this would never have happened in the old government. It was impossible to go abroad for the average person. Only the very wealthy or government officials got to travel," Zhukouski said, smiling. "Now, it is a nice part of life."

Viktor has made a new life ever since the flu settled in his eyes at age 18, atrophying the optic nerves.

"The doctors say this never happens," Zhukouski said. "It happened to me."

A cross country skier, soccer player and track athlete growing up, he was inspired to go on after hearing the cassette tape of a book, "Sport of Light," by a Russian athlete who was blinded at 20.

"I put together a plan to live an integrated life and not stop competing," Viktor said.

A five-time national visually impaired cross country skiing champion, Zhukouski finished seventh and eighth in Nagano races.

He also kept going on his track side — claiming four silver medals evenly split between Summer Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney, as a long jumper, triple jumper and pentathlete.

"For me, sports is a beautiful way of self-expression and self-realization," Viktor said.

However, he is looking forward to returning home to wife Natalia and son Roman.

Mike Crenshaw had his prosthesis off in the U.S. trailer at Soldier Hollow. Something wrong with the bushings. Now he was reattaching it just below the right kneebone.

"What they (doctors) like to call the residual limb, we just call it the stump," Crenshaw, 46, said with a swashbuckling laugh.

He was ready to practice now, as he has since being recruited to disabled cross country skiing nine years ago.

"These coaches see you out there, 'Hey, he's not too fast, but he's missing a leg. Let's get the gimpy guy.' We're just idiots looking for more abuse," Crenshaw said, joking.

Never flinching has worked pretty well for Crenshaw ever since losing part of leg in a tractor accident at 19, on his parents' ranch in Bondurant, Wyo.

A buddy was up front driving, Crenshaw was standing on the back, as they rolled out to feed hay to 150 head of horses and cows.

"We hit a bump, and I stepped back," Crenshaw said.

Right into the drive shaft. Normally there's a safety guard there.

"Ranchers always take 'em off so it's easier to work on 'em," he said.

The drive shaft gobbled Crenshaw's leg "pretty instantaneously."

"Took the foot right off, sheared the shin and wrapped it around the drive shaft."

There was time to wrap the foot up in a dirty old shirt. Pile him into the back of a Volkswagen bus. The ambulance met them halfway to St. John's Hospital in Jackson.

He thought his active days — high-school alpine racer, back-country skier, horsepack guide — might be behind him. But not after talks with his mom, Mimi.

"She's kind of strong-headed. I never got too down in the dumps. Just kept on plugging," said Crenshaw, a geologist by trade.

He plugged away to fourth in the men's classic 5-kilometer standing event at Soldier Hollow.

"I do this stuff because racing's racing and racing's rewarding, no matter how you do it," he said.

"And as you go along you realize everyone's messed up somehow. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally. We all got problems. It's a matter of what you do with them."

Briefing on 2002

The National Paralympics Committee Chefs seminar will be held Sunday through Tuesday to brief members about the 2002 Games. Members will hear from SLOC advisers on topics ranging from security to drug tests to accreditation to transportation. Attendees will tour Olympic venues such as Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Paralympic Village, the E Center and the Olympic Oval before dispersing Tuesday evening.


E-mail: gtwyman@desnews.com