Blades of metal, and a will of iron

Allison Baver slammed into a wall after a collision in the 500, her first eventof the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. She suffered an ankle injuryand finished 12th. The accident was similar to the one last year.
Allison Baver slammed into a wall after a collision in the 500, her first eventof the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. She suffered an ankle injuryand finished 12th. The accident was similar to the one last year.

The remarkable recovery of speedskater Allison Baver.

Posted: January 31, 2010

SALT LAKE CITY - It's hard to imagine now, as her third Winter Games near and she hones her talents to the sharpness of her speedskating blades, but less than a year ago Allison Baver's Olympic dream was in as many pieces as her right leg.

Last Feb. 8, during the third lap of a World Cup event in Bulgaria, a nasty collision launched the short-tracker into the air. She slammed feetfirst into the sideboards, the 40 m.p.h. impact shattering her tibia so severely that the Philadelphia surgeon who reassembled it said the task was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

When, a few days after the accident, a University of Pennsylvania trauma specialist saw the X-rays, he asked the Berks County resident if she'd been hit by a trash truck. Baver, he said, could forget about competing in September's Olympic trials. It might be three years before she could even skate again.

"All I kept thinking was, 'Oh no, they moved the trials up this year.' Usually, it's in December. Now they were in September," Baver said. "I was like, 'This can't be happening to me.' "

Disappointment and a rash of ailments had spoiled her first two Olympic experiences, and Baver, America's most accomplished female short-tracker, wasn't going to let anything ruin her third - and probably last - shot at a medal.

So, just seven months before the trials, she found a surgeon. Then she found the will to recover. Against all odds, at the trials in Marquette, Mich., Baver skated well enough to qualify for the U.S. team at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"Her comeback," said Laurent Daignault, an assistant U.S. coach, "is almost a miracle."

Now she figures she will be at 100 percent in Vancouver, where the Games open on Feb. 12. Short-track competition begins Feb. 13 and Baver will compete at 1,000 and 1,500 meters as well as in the 3,000-meter relay.

The American women could contend for a gold medal in the relay. And while Baver will not be the favorite for gold in her individual events, she will certainly be a top contender.

The 29-year-old part-time model will be - along with skeleton's Eric Bernotas, figure skater Johnny Weir, ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, and a couple Flyers - one of several area athletes with a chance to win a medal.

Baver, whose six-year relationship with her sport's superstar, Apolo Anton Ohno, ended in 2009, will be there because she rehabilitated strenuously, persisted stubbornly, and dreamed big. And if the result is a gold medal, Baver, with her model's looks and her compelling story of physical redemption, figures to become an instant Olympic celebrity.

"It's been one thing after another," she said after a December training session here. "But I'm not giving up now. There's no friggin' way I'm not going to be on that podium."

Injuries get in the way

Baver grew up in Sinking Spring, a suburb west of Reading. Her father, Brad, is a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation highway foreman. Her mother, Dixie, is a payroll accountant. Baver's sister, Crystal, is an analyst for Penske Truck Rentals, which is also one of the skater's sponsors. Her brother, Brad Jr., is a junior at Temple.

A graduate of Wilson High in West Lawn, Baver has a marketing degree from Penn State and an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology. She has also written a children's book, which she hopes to have published when her days on the ice are done.

Sometimes it has seemed as if that day would come much sooner than later, with or without an Olympic medal.

Whenever she's felt in reach of her goal, her body confounds her. An ill-timed ankle injury. A paralyzing back sprain. A mysteriously racing heart. And most recently the devastating pilon spiral fracture of her leg.

Growing up, Baver was an accomplished in-line skater. At 16, she transitioned to the ice and short-track, and by 2002 the 22-year-old was on the U.S. Olympic team.

But she was the new kid on the ice block at the Salt Lake City Games, and she never got to skate.

Four years later, in Turin, Italy, Baver was a medal threat in both the 500 and 1,500. But in her first event, the 500, another midrace collision left her with an injured ankle. She finished 12th in that race, seventh in the 1,500.

Disheartened, she stepped gingerly away from the sport. When she resumed training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in 2007, she fell again.

"I couldn't move my back," she said. "I thought I was paralyzed. I had re-sprained the same ankle and hurt my back. The U.S. championships were in five weeks, and I was in a wheelchair."

Again, Baver recovered so quickly that she ended up winning the overall title at those championships and finishing fifth at the subsequent world championships.

Then, after relocating to this mountain-encircled city, where the 2002 Games' speedskating oval in suburban Kearns is now the Americans' training center, she endured another freak and potentially disabling accident when a massage therapist inadvertently incapacitated her.

"He used his elbow in my neck," she said. "Within an hour I was projectile-vomiting and had severe tightness in my spine. When I tried to skate, I was so dizzy I couldn't keep up. No one could figure it out."

Brain scans and other tests turned up no damage. Then a physician noticed that her resting heart rate had jumped from 54 to 129. She was sent to a cardiologist.

"By this time I'm freaking out," she said. "I can't even walk up the stairs. I'm thinking my career is over."

Eventually, physicians determined the masseuse's pressure had caused cervical instability. The neck damage stimulated her nervous system. That in turn elevated her levels of the hormone prolactin, which then caused her heart to race at the slightest neck movement.

Whenever she got into position at the start of a race, her heart rate soared.

"It fluctuated with the movement of my spine," she said.

For a while, Baver said, she thought she had the heart problem under control. Then she took a Sudafed, not a banned substance at the time, for a cold. Within minutes, her heart was beating 180 times a minute. The speedskating federation shut her down.

"I said, 'Hey, there are people with diabetes here. I have a right to be here.' They said, 'No you don't. Not if something is wrong with your heart,' " she said of the conversation with federation officials.

The heart problem continued to ebb and resurface.

"My autonervous system was stimulated," she said. "I was in constant fight mode. I had to train my body to relax."

Baver gave up caffeine and rests more frequently.

Chilling video

By the start of the 2009 speedskating season, Baver was in top form. Before that fateful race in Bulgaria, she had won more World Cup medals than any other skater, male or female.

The YouTube video of her wipeout in Sofia is chilling to view. A Bulgarian trainer rushes onto the ice and begins tugging at the fallen skater's leg. As he screams "traction," Baver simply screams.

"I was screaming," she recalled. "I wasn't crying. I was screaming."

She was taken to a hospital, placed in a cast and put on a plane for home.

One issue that came home with her was that the skater closest to her in the corner before the crash was American Katherine Reutter, who will also compete in Vancouver.

Baver initially was angry with her rival, insinuating that Reutter had caused the accident. The two did collide on the turn, but Baver, more sanguine with the Olympics on the near-horizon, now says she doesn't blame Reutter.

"It's a part of our sport," she said. "We come in contact with each other on the ice."

Rodney Fetaya, director of sports for Wilhelmina International, Baver's New York-based modeling agency, suggested that the skater's initial reaction was understandable given the severity of her injury and the fact that it happened a year out from Vancouver.

"You saw the video," Fetaya said. "Allison and Katherine collided. Allison took the worst of it. I think at a time like that every athlete asks, 'Why me?' when they go through a traumatic injury. 'Why did this have to happen? Why did this happen to me?' I think it is a very natural thing to feel and think."

Baver said that while she and Reutter train together here, they haven't spoken of the incident.

"We're trying to get past it," she said. "We train together every day. We're both going to be on the U.S. relay team at the Olympics. We both want to win a gold medal. We've been getting the silver medals at most meets and we're really excited about the chance to win a gold."

Fixing her leg

When Baver returned to the United States, she was determined not to quit, even after the initial diagnosis was so depressing.

A physician in Reading referred her to Wen Chao, a foot and ankle surgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital. Baver, eager to start rehabilitation since the trials were looming, made an appointment.

"I could see the mechanics of the injury very clearly," Chao said of Baver's first visit. "Several of the fractures had pushed down into the ankle joint, which gave me some concern."

The most obvious solution to stabilize the badly damaged leg and ankle would have been to insert a metal rod. Fearful that could end her competitive career, Baver researched whether any skater had ever had success following such a procedure.

"I couldn't find one," she said.

Chao suggested they instead use a thin metal plate, one that was designed for forearms or immature legs.

The skater was told there were no guarantees. Even if the surgery were successful, Chao said, the leg would have to be nonweight bearing until it healed completely, perhaps as long as four months.

"She told me that if she couldn't get perfect alignment of the ankle joint, I'd never be able to skate again," Baver said. "It would be a permanent disability. But she was willing to try to make it perfect."

After waiting for the swelling to subside, Chao performed the surgery Feb. 18.

Chao carried one of the Olympian's pink skates into the operating room. She wanted to make sure the boot would not impinge on the incision or on the spots where she would insert the plate and dozen or so screws.

Afterward, Baver was not permitted to put any weight on the healing leg. She couldn't even touch a toe to the ground.

"It's like gluing," said Chao. "You don't want to upset the glue until it's completely dried."

While recovering at home in Sinking Spring, Baver focused on getting the rest of her body in shape.

Her parents and an aunt rotated as her caregivers as she did leg lifts, used a medicine ball, and performed abs workouts. But she spent considerable time in her father's rocking chair watching TV. Soon, she had lost 10 pounds of muscle mass.

In early April, just five months until the trials, she couldn't yet bend her right toe.

"I had to go from not walking to Olympic-ready in a few months," Baver said. "How do I make that happen? So I focused on one day at a time. And I went to Colorado Springs to start rehab."

That was April 5. By the end of the month, she had discarded her crutches. Eric Heiden, the 1980 Olympic legend who is now the speedskating team's orthopedic surgeon, monitored Baver's condition. Regularly, he e-mailed X-rays of the leg to Chao.

"At first, I could still see the breaks," Chao recalled. "But by June it looked healed, and I told her she could go all out."

But before that, on May 23, Baver, who had signed with the Wilhelmina modeling agency, did a photo shoot for two fitness magazines, and the photographer asked her to don her skates, something she hadn't done since February.

Not only was it extremely painful, but with the skate on she found she could hardly move her ankle. In tears, she phoned her mother.

"I said, 'Mom, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this,' " Baver said. "She said, 'Allison, all you can do is try. Why not get on the ice tomorrow?' "

The next day Baver went to a local rink during the public skate.

"I didn't know how weak my knee or hip would be after not being allowed to walk for 21/2 months," Baver said. "But I did know that if I was able to skate and train there was a chance."

She grimaced as she slipped the right boot over the ankle. But on the ice, she eventually was able to make a crossover move. After 15 minutes, she was convinced she could compete at the trials. She returned to the ice every other day, sometimes doing nothing more than standing on the recovering leg.

"It was like starting over," she said. "I had worked my entire career, and here I had to start brand new."

At September's trials, Baver skated well, though nowhere near her peak. That was still good enough to earn her a third Olympic berth.

"In an Olympic year everybody steps it up," she said. "When I first got on the ice, there were girls going as fast as they could. And I was trying to balance on one leg. But I felt like I was improving."

To compensate for her injury, she altered her skating style, pushing off more with her hips than her legs.

"It got me through the trials OK," she said. "I was still in a lot of pain, but the good thing is I'm in a relatively low-impact sport."

With the worries of qualifying gone, she has been spending the last few months training intensely and focusing on her rehabilitation.

"I feel like I haven't done my best yet," Baver said. "I want to go to the Olympics and not just win a medal but perform to the best of my ability for my country. That's all I've been working for."


Allison Baver File

Olympic short-track speed skater.

Age 29.

Grew up in Sinking Spring, just outside Reading

Mother, Dixie; father, Brad Sr.; sister, Crystal; brother, Brad, Jr.

Graduated from Wilson High School in West Lawn; bachelor's degree from Penn State; MBA from New York Institute of Technology.

Vancouver Olympics will be her third (probably last); she's still hoping for her first medal.

Events are 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters and 3,000-meter relay, with best chance for gold in the relay.

She was the 2007 U.S. champion and, at one time, held the American record in the 1,000 meters.

Dated fellow short-track skater Apolo Anton Ohno.

A Wilhelmina model, she will be part of a Proctor & Gamble advertising campaign during the Olympics; appeared on the covers of Muscle & Body and Muscle & Fitness.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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