In the early-morning darkness of winter, Lina Tcheryazova would
begin anew the struggle to put her life back together. For several
months, at 7 a.m. daily, she boarded a bus on the outskirts of
Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that took her to a folk doctor's apartment.
There she drank potions of berries, grasses and twigs in hopes of
recovering more fully from a massive head injury she suffered in
Tcheryazova, the Olympic champion in women's freestyle aerial
skiing, has fallen a long way since she climbed the medal podium
in Lillehammer a little more than a year ago. Now, recuperating
back home in Tashkent, the 26-year- old Tcheryazova leads a meager
existence. Short of funds, she uses public transportation and
trains in a dilapidated sports hall. And as an ethnic Russian in a
country now run by its Muslim majority, she finds that Uzbekistan
may no longer have a place for her.
Three years ago her future seemed secure. Growing up in the Soviet
Union's extensive sports program, Tcheryazova had trained as a
gymnast and acrobat before switching to aerial skiing at the late
age of 19. She became a perestroika success story: The daughter of
a factory worker and a construction worker, she was reprogrammed
to excel in a flashy new sport.
At 23, representing the Unified Team, she finished fifth in the
demonstration aerial competition at the 1992 Winter Olympics in
Albertville, France. But the breakup of the Soviet Union boded ill
for Tcheryazova. She was left stranded in a country whose culture,
language and religion she didn't share, with her dreams of
security as a Soviet sports hero dashed.
March 6, 1995
Still, she and her coach, Dmitri Kavunov, made the best of limited
funds and a curtailed training season. In the two years preceding
Lillehammer, with her acrobatic skills honed to perfection, she
revolutionized women's aerial skiing. She became the first woman
to execute triple flips in competition. And at the 1994 Games, as
the only member of the Uzbek aerial team, Tcheryazova won the gold
medal with those same stunning triples.
She immediately became the pride and joy of newly independent
Uzbekistan. For her victory -- Uzbekistan's first Olympic gold
medal -- the government promised her $10,000, a new car and an
apartment. But in a cruel twist of fate Tcheryazova was permitted
a mere few hours to bask in Olympic glory. As she ran to telephone
her parents with the wonderful news, she was pulled aside by Uzbek
sports officials and informed that her mother had died 12 days
earlier. They told her that her mother's last wish had been that
the news of her death be kept from Lina until after she competed.
When Lina returned home in March, she learned from her father,
Anatoly, that her mother's left leg had been injured on Jan. 10
during her shift on a metal-cutting machine at the Tashkent
Tractor Factory. Doctors arriving on the scene ignored the
46-year-old Svetlana's diabetes, with its threat of complications.
She refused to be hospitalized and was sent home. Gangrene set in,
according to Anatoly. The necessary antibiotic, expensive by Uzbek
standards at $10 to $25 a dose, was unavailable in Tashkent.
Before long, not even amputation was an option. The infection had
spread, and Svetlana was doomed.
Lina was haunted by the thought that, had she been at home and
not competing in Europe and North America, she could have helped her
mother obtain money for better medical care. Lina threw herself
into training in an effort to put the tragedy behind her.
Last July 13 she was training at the U.S. Olympic complex's aerial
ski facility in Lake Placid. She had completed 10 jumps into the
pool and begged Kavunov to let her do two more. On the 11th jump,
for some reason, her legs wavered. ``Something shook her,'' says
Kavunov. ``There was uncertainty, and she hesitated.'' Tcheryazova
caught a ski on the ramp just before taking off. Moving at 50
mph, she lurched off-balance and rose 35 feet into the air before
slamming down onto the lip of the ramp. The back of her helmet
took the brunt of the blow. Her limp body fell into the pool
below. An alert emergency medical technician jumped into the water
and saved the unconscious athlete from drowning.
After being airlifted to the Medical Center of Vermont in
Burlington, Tcheryazova was kept in a coma by doctors for more
than a week in an effort to slow down the skier's brain function
and reduce swelling. Had the accident occurred in Uzbekistan,
there is little doubt that Tcheryazova would have died. Though
she had no insurance, she received skilled medical attention, much
of it free, in Vermont and then at the Gaylord Hospital in
Wallingford, Conn., which specializes in treating patients with
severe head and spinal-cord injuries.
The blow permanently afflicted two areas of Tcheryazova's brain.
The most serious damage -- a tear in the inner brain's corpus
callosum -- has affected communication between the brain's right
and left sides. Tcheryazova's ability to perform complex new tasks
is also diminished, according to Dr. Frank Palermo, a physiatrist
specializing in rehabilitation medicine at Gaylord who oversaw her
two-month stay in the U.S.
Recovery from brain damage is relatively uncharted territory. ``We
don't have all the answers, and the spirit of high-level athletes
always surprises us -- their ability to overcome injury that would
stop a normal person from even considering future competition,''
says Palermo, who has been a traveling physician for the U.S. ski
team since 1986.
In Tcheryazova, Palermo had a unique patient. She has an unusually
high tolerance for pain and an almost frightening drive to
compete. These were qualities that Palermo had noted earlier in
the year when she tore a ligament and some cartilage in her right
knee during a World Cup competition in Lake Placid three weeks
before Lillehammer. Despite instability in her knee, which buckled
repeatedly on landing, she continued to compete. She wasn't even
deterred by a nasty collision with some poles supporting a banner
by the side of the course that took place during Olympic
preparation in Lillehammer.
``I have seen her endure pain that nobody else could deal with,''
says Jeff Chumas, director of the U.S. Freestyle Skiing Program.
Says Kavunov, who has coached Tcheryazova since 1987, ``Lina's not
like other athletes. She has no personal life. She's not in
university. She's not a student. She's a fanatic. Maybe this isn't
normal, but it's her life.''
Tcheryazova's recovery in the U.S. was remarkable. Eight weeks
after the injury, Palermo determined that motor memory loss was
preventing her from running backward. Using a device he invented
that reeducates the neuromuscular system, Palermo sent electrical
impulses into her legs to reestablish muscle coordination. With
this and intensive therapy she was running backward within a week.
A week later she was walking on her hands outside the Gaylord
complex. ``One week she was a person with major neurological
functional damage,'' says Palermo. ``The next week I would see her
and ask, `How in god's name did you overcome that?' ''
Since Tcheryazova arrived in Uzbekistan in late September, her
rehabilitation has been hampered by poor training facilities and a
lack of adequate medical care. If she is able to jump again, she
will most likely need to find another country for which to
compete. Fearful of growing nationalist sentiment in Uzbekistan,
ethnic Russians, including top athletes, are leaving the country,
most headed for Russia. Tcheryazova, who doesn't speak a word of
Uzbek although she has lived in the republic for her whole life,
is worried too.
``Most of my friends have already left,'' she says. ``They see
there's no future for Russians, only for Uzbeks. Since I am an
Olympic champion, they relate to me well, but I don't have a
future here. Everything will be in the Uzbek language.'' In 1993,
says Tcheryazova, the Russian aerial ski coaches tried to lure her
away. She declined because the offer did not include Kavunov.
Training conditions in Uzbekistan are appalling. Tcheryazova jumps
on trampolines that have holes because Uzbekistan's State
Committee of Physical Culture and Sport can't afford to have them
repaired. With precious little money to spend annually on each of
its citizens, the sports committee is hard- pressed to meet the
needs of its athletes, even the needs of its only Olympic
champion. A weekly allowance from the sports committee for meat
and vegetables helps Tcheryazova make ends meet. She admits with
an embarrassed smile that her father is selling his late wife's
clothes for extra money.
To its credit the sports committee did make good on its promise of
a car (which Kavunov urges Tcheryazova not to drive during her
recovery), an apartment and $10,000, but Tcheryazova has received
little more than that. Her biggest sponsors -- Hart, a ski
manufacturer, and Reusch, which makes ski gloves -- have not yet
renewed her contract this season. And with Tcheryazova's career
still in limbo, no other sponsor has stepped forward.
Meanwhile, she has medical bills outstanding from the treatment
she received in the U.S. These charges totaled roughly $93,000,
money the Uzbek sports committee does not have, according to Sabir
Ruziev, president of the National Olympic Committee of Uzbekistan.
On a brighter note, the International Olympic Committee recently
honored a pledge it had made to cover $25,000 of the unpaid bills.
Uzbek doctors fear that Tcheryazova may never recover fully if her
living conditions don't improve. ``She gets 600 som [about $24] a
month,'' says one doctor who is familiar with the case but refused
to be identified. ``It's too little. She should be eating three
times a day. If she has to stand in line and ride the metro, then
we can consider we have lost an athlete. If the Americans could
take her back, we wouldn't object.''
In the absence of adequate medical attention, Tcheryazova turned
to Volodya Gann, a self-taught specialist in folk medicine. He
brews potions from roots and twigs that he collects in the
mountains along the Chinese border. Tcheryazova says that the
concoctions did make her feel better, but Gann himself is bitter
about the state of health care in Uzbekistan. ``Because we don't
have medicine, we use grasses,'' he says. ``The intelligent
Russian doctors have left. There's no diagnostic equipment, nor
anyone to use it.''
Tcheryazova is only too aware of the situation. ``In the hospital
in the U.S., I felt that I would immediately get back in shape,''
she says. ``But I came home, and all these problems hit me.''
She was recently able to attend the world championships in La
Clusaz, France, with her country's freestyle ski team. She hopes
to be able to train again in Lake Placid this summer and to return
to the World Cup circuit next December. Her long-term goal is to
compete in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Tcheryazova
strikes one as an unlikely modern-day Icarus. Unassuming and
deferential, she is visibly cheered by a foreign visitor's concern
about her trials and signs a picture of herself wearing her gold
medal with the words, ``Thank you for showing an interest in me.''
But her wings have most definitely been damaged, maybe irreparably
so. Six months after her accident she is learning to do flips
again -- just single somersaults for now.
Tcheryazova is hesitant in her jumping, and her eyes betray a
vulnerability that almost begs one to ask why she puts herself
through this. But she goes on, unconscious of her own courage.
With little fanfare, driven by hope and desperation, Tcheryazova
is pushing the limits of her recovery as she once pushed those of
her sport. ``I say to myself, I must train, compete and get good
results, and then life will get better,'' she says.
What that life will be and where it will take her seems as
uncertain as the prospect of Lina Tcheryazova ever executing
another triple flip.
Jeffrey Lilley recently moved from Russia, where he spent several
years, to Singapore.