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‘The Seagull’ Flies Again: Polish Luger Returns to Site of Gruesome Injury to Compete at Olympics

Three months ago, Mateusz Sochowicz sustained a serious leg injury at the Olympic luge venue. On Saturday, he raced on the same track.

YANQING DISTRICT, BEIJING — The most admired luger at these Winter Olympics completed Saturday night’s first and second singles runs in 27th place, effectively guaranteeing that his time at the National Sliding Centre will end on Sunday without a medal. But speedy results aren’t the reason why opponents are bending backwards over their sleds to sing his praises.

It is the simple fact that Mateusz Sochowicz of Poland is here among them, competing at all.

“Look at the story,” says Great Britain’s Rupert Staudinger. “It’s crazy.”

“It’s incredible,” says Team USA’s Chris Mazdzer. “It’s badass.”

“Everyone has a huge level of respect for him,” says Tucker West, also of the U.S. “To come back on a track that quite nearly put him out for the rest of his life is very impressive.”

Three months ago, in November 2021, Sochowicz had barely launched himself from the start handles for a test run at the eventual Olympic venue when he spied a terrifying sight up ahead: a metal barrier that should’ve been open but was instead closed. Thinking quickly and tapping into his childhood background as a downhill skier, the 25-year-old let go of his sled, stood into a crouch and attempted to springboard over the gate. Instead he struck it, fracturing his left kneecap and suffering such deep cuts on his right leg that a 20-centimeter section of bone was exposed.

At first, Sochowicz was predictably furious. He ripped course management for its “great incompetence,” not only for forgetting to open the barrier but also the medical attention that he received. “Someone came to me and tried to touch my bone with a glove,” he said then. “Dante-esque scenes were happening there.” (The IOC launched an investigation; Beijing organizers blamed it on “human error.”) Later, on Instagram in Polish, he recounted lashing out at one of the first responders, declaring that he neither liked Chinese people nor trusted them.

An operation immediately followed at a Peking University hospital; a week later Sochowicz flew back to Poland to continue his rehab, setting an ambitious goal for himself: Return in time for the Olympics—and return to Yanqing to conquer his demons. He also started working with a Polish team psychologist, who helped him realize that what had happened was an accident and led him to release the blame he was holding for those whose errors caused it. “This experience lifted me above stereotypes and taught me exactly not to judge people by the cover,” he wrote in the same Instagram post, “especially when the cover is covered by a tight [hazmat] suit.”

The road wasn’t easy. Sleep proved near-impossible early on, as even a soft blanket touching his leg left him writhing in pain, and a simple task like climbing into a car suddenly took 10 minutes. “I had to start to learn how to walk again,” Sochowicz says. “Sounds like impossible thing.” But the man known throughout his country by his nickname Mewa, or Seagull, attacked these obstacles with all the tenacity of the competitor who finished 27th at the frigid 2018 Games in PyeongChang without a mask on his face. (It fell off his helmet when he removed his jacket just before the race.) “I want[ed] to come back to show that nothing is impossible,” he says.

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Mateusz Sochowicz of Poland competes in men’s luge at the Beijing Olympics.

The payoff came earlier this year in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where Sochowicz returned to the track for his only World Cup race of the season and found a hero’s welcome waiting for him at the finish line. “The athletes were there, gave him a standing applause as he came through,” West says. “His mental fortitude is immensely strong.”

Around that time, Sochowicz also received word that he had been selected to represent his home country in Beijing. “It was a horror,” Sochowicz says, summarizing his journey with a laugh. “Yeah, a lot of hard work.”

Here the Seagull rattles off a partial list of those without whom his comeback wouldn’t have been possible: “My doctors, my girlfriend, my coach, my physio,” he says. “I could talk and talk and talk and the list would never end.” Others include the same airline pilot who both steered Sochowicz back to Poland after the accident and later to Beijing for the game—Sochowicz signed a flag for him—and the hospital staff at Peking University, who Sochowicz recently revisited to thank. "It was pretty fun,” he says. “The doctor said, when he was repairing me on the table, he was thinking I will not make it to the Olympics. He was so happy for me.”

Here the doc is far from alone. “I’m so impressed with him that he’s here,” U.S. women’s luger Summer Britcher says. “It’s a terrible thing to happen to anybody, but he's a very well-liked person across the board, so it was like, ‘Noo, not him!’” Adds Mazdzer, who enters Sunday’s singles final in ninth, “I promise you, luge is not a way to get rich,” he says. "You do this because you love it, and it really speaks worlds that he’s doing this. His passion and fire are incredible.” And West: “He’s smashing it. It’s even impressive that he can still walk.”

Mateusz Sochowicz of Poland competes in men’s luge at the Beijing Olympics.

Sochowicz admits that certain fears kicked in the first time that he returned to the mountainous National Sliding Centre, also known as the “Snow Dragon.” But while each of his legs still bore a gnarly reminder of the accident—20 centimeters long on the right; from the top of the knee to the bottom on the left—his mind was unscarred. “If you start thinking about something else, you'll probably end your run in this moment,” he says. Even so, he holds a morbid curiosity about his accident, having still not seen video of the moment that he struck the barrier. “I want to,” he says. “I’m pretty curious what I’ve done in this situation. In my mind I was jumping through it, but what my body actually do, and what part I actually hit.”

But that can wait. For now, Sochowicz wants to maximize his time in Beijing, marching in Friday night's opening ceremony—an experience that he didn’t get four years ago—and regularly reposting well-wishes from friends, family and fans on social media. It will take a virtual miracle for Sochowicz to leapfrog clubhouse leader Johannes Ludwig—a 2018 bronze medalist who set new track and start records in rounds one and two, respectively—let alone the 25 other world-class athletes who stand between him and a spot on the podium.

Speaking late Saturday night, Sochowicz was hard on himself, lamenting small technical errors that cost him precious time. “It was not my best,” he says. “Not good ones even. I messed up, to be honest.” But he also allowed room to appreciate the magnitude of the moment. After completing his first for-real run on Saturday, Sochowicz cruised past the finish line with a faint smile on his face. Then he learned back, raised his arms and exhaled in relief.

Once again, the Seagull was flying.

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