Cliff Meidl leads the USA Teams waving the American Flag around the track during Opening Ceremonies before the 2000 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia.
Cliff Meidl lost approximately a third of the bone and soft issue in his knees, and he still can’t run after more than a dozen surgeries.
He has no problems stepping into a kayak, though.
On a recent Saturday, Meidl paddled through the harbor in Marina del Rey, California, on a surf ski, which is a type of a kayak designed for ocean racing. He was getting in one of several workouts he must do each week to keep his legs strong.
Meidl feels at peace on the water. It’s where he found acceptance and a new identity after a major accident at a construction site caused him to go into cardiac arrest and almost lose both of his legs more than three decades ago at age 20.
Thanks to kayaking, Meidl also took the most memorable walk of his life in front of 2 billion viewers worldwide.
“I remember being so nervous,” he said. “I was telling myself, ‘Whatever you do, don’t trip ’because I walk like Bambi anyway because I still have a limp.”
Meidl was 34 and competing in his second Olympics as a sprint kayaker when he was selected as the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Games. He was chosen because of his improbable comeback story.
Waving the American flag over his head, Meidl led the delegation of American athletes — more than 600 of them dressed in red-white-and-blue outfits — into Stadium Australia, the site of the Opening Ceremony.
Back in his hometown of Manhattan Beach, California, a local TV crew filmed Meidl’s friends and family as they watched him take one step after another during the Olympic festivities.
It was a moment that seemed unimaginable 14 years earlier, when Meidl’s mother was fighting for doctors to not amputate his legs following his accident.
“The hair on the back neck stands up when I explain to people in audiences all across the country, when I do motivational talks, (about) that moment of pride and honor that I experienced at that time when I took that deep breath and turned around and looked behind me and the only thing I could see was a sea of red, white and blue — all the U.S. athletes — following me in (at the Opening Ceremony),” Meidl said.
Sept. 15 marks the 20th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Gams Sydney 2000. Meidl, now 54, saved the clothes he wore that night while serving as the U.S. flag bearer.
His outfit, including the sport coat that Meidl joked probably no longer fits him, is packed away in a suitcase. It stands in stark contrast to the singed pair of jeans that first responders had to cut off Meidl’s legs after he received fourth-degree burns during his near-death experience in 1986.
At the time, Meidl was a college student who was two years into an industrial plumbing apprenticeship. While operating a jackhammer, he accidentally made contact with three live electrical cables, sending around 30,000 volts of electricity shooting through his body.
The shock was so great it blew Meidl out of the hole he was standing in, and then he slid back into the hole with the electrical cables. His legs hooked onto the energized jackhammer he was holding for nearly 20 seconds, disintegrating close to a third of the knee compartment in both legs.
Meidl went into cardiac arrest and suffered electrical burns and exit wounds to more than 15 percent of his body. Four firefighters, including one who coincidentally now lives in the same Manhattan Beach neighborhood as Meidl, helped save his life.
“When you go through adversities, there’s a lot of shame that goes along with that and that was defined by me,” Meidl said. “I was very shameful of what had happened. I was embarrassed about what I looked like.”