Zur grateful for 2nd chance after spinal injury

Aug. 19, 2008, 9:33 a.m. (ET)

BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China (AP) His neck broken and his body nearly paralyzed, Rami Zur didn't know if he ever would be able to kayak again - let alone get another shot at racing in the Olympics.

Four years later, though, the top American sprint kayaker has not only returned to the sport he loves, but has two chances to medal at the Beijing Games.

Zur has reached the semifinals of both his kayak single (K-1) events at the Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing Park. He qualified for the 500-meter race on Tuesday with a third-place finish in his heat, one day after clinching a spot in the 1,000 semifinals.

"This is the position I want to be in, and I just hope I have enough left to get to the finals," he said.

Few athletes at the Beijing Games might be as grateful for their spot as Zur.

Zur reached the semifinals in the same events four years ago in the Athens Games, his second Olympics after competing for Israel in Sydney. After competition ended, Zur decided to relax with a dip in the pool.

When he went to jump, he slipped on the wet surface and gashed his head in the shallow end of the pool. He was stitched up, felt nothing but a headache and thought everything was fine.

Then his neck stiffened a day or so later. Three days later, he couldn't lift his head off the pillow and had trouble getting out of bed. Zur even went and saw a chiropractor for relief, with no improvement.

An Israeli doctor Zur knew saw the Olympian gingerly walking around with stitches in his head.

"What did the X-rays say?" the doctor asked.

Zur hadn't had any X-rays, but he did soon after.

"Then," Zur said, "I find out my neck was broken."

Zur had a disk that herniated into his spinal cord. Doctors told him he could have been paralyzed.

He was extremely lucky to have bumped into the doctor for a second opinion. And that one wrong crack by the chiropractor didn't leave him crippled.

"That's the scarier part, that something didn't happen then," he said.

After a trip back to California and some time for the swelling to subside, Zur needed screws and a titanium plate to fuse two of his vertebrae.

Turns out, the kayak was exactly what he needed. The rapid motion was perfect for rehabilitation and he was back out on the flatwater months after the accident.

"It's not that it limits me, but I am aware of it," Zur said. "I don't recover as quick. I need more physical therapy. It takes longer to move on to the next training session."

U.S. coach Nathan Luce started working with Zur in 2005 and said there are few signs his career has been adversely affected.

"I've kind of forgotten he's had the injury the last couple of years," Luce said. "The first year in '05, he could only do a lot of things gingerly, he couldn't run, we had to taper training."

Zur earned the U.S. a position in the Olympics with his top 5 finish at last year's world championships. He finished third in his heat Tuesday at 1:39.037, losing out on first place to an Israeli friend and former teammate. Michael Kolganov won the heat in 1:38.396.

His 1,000-meter semi is Wednesday and the 500 is Thursday.

Zur was born in the United States, but was quickly put up for adoption. The brother of his biological mother flew him to a waiting family in Israel where he spent most of his life.

His family would briefly move to America and Zur spent second and third grade in a public school near Los Angeles before they moved back to Israel. Zur was raised near the Sea of Galilee and developed a love of the water from sailing outings with his father.

The 31-year-old Zur served three years in the Israeli Defense Forces as a pharmaceutical technician and competed for his country in the Sydney Games, reaching the 500-meter and 1,000-meter K-1 semifinals. Zur moved to California once his funding was cut back home and used his dual citizenship to compete for the United States in the last two Olympics.

Zur's accident changed his outlook on life, as tragic events often do.

"I think he knows how to control himself now," Luce said. "He's a bit calmer before the event. He doesn't get keyed up. You can tell he's not getting too worked up over the small things."

And there is one more change.

"No more jumping in pools," Zur chuckled. "Just paddling."