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Cliff Meidl’s Inspirational Comeback Led To His Selection As Team USA’s Flag Bearer In 2000

By Alex Abrams | Sept. 15, 2020, 11:44 a.m. (ET)

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.”

In a last-ditch attempt to save Meidl’s legs, Dr. Malcolm Lesavoy — a world-renown plastic surgeon at UCLA and now one of Meidl’s good friends — recommended a procedure that was innovative at the time.

Lesavoy suggested for muscle to be taken from the calves in Meidl’s legs and grafted onto where the tissue and bone in his knees has been burned away. The procedure worked, but Meidl had to learn to walk again.

He started canoeing as part of his rehabilitation, eventually transforming his body and turning himself into an unlikely Olympic sprint kayaker.

“Would I have ever been an Olympian (if not the accident)? Probably not,” Meidl said. “I did paddle canoes one year when I was 16 years of age, but I can say this much, that I was a big, big, big dreamer as a kid.”

Meidl didn’t earn a medal in either of his two Olympic appearances, at the 1996 Atlanta Games and four years later in Sydney. He never advanced beyond the semifinal round in sprint kayaking. He’s found his story still resonates, though.

In addition to serving as vice president of a development company, Meidl shares his story as a motivational speaker. He said he was taking part in 20-30 speaking engagements a year before the coronavirus pandemic forced him to stay home.

“Because I had the accident, it was a construction accident, one of my passions is really to be able to give back to the construction community and really focus on how important worksite safety is,” he said.

Meidl said he was shocked when he learned a month before the Sydney Olympics that he had been elected as the U.S. flag bearer. He assumed another American athlete, perhaps one more well known than him, would be chosen for the honor.

Meidl was taking part in a training camp in Narrabeen, Australia, which is a suburb of Sydney, in the weeks leading up to the 2000 Olympics. One evening, as he sat on a couch and watched TV, the captain of the U.S. kayaking team returned from a meeting and broke the news to everyone.

Meidl had been voted the U.S. flag bearer after his story was presented to other team captains.

“I thought it was a big joke initially,” Meidl said. “But then it all set in, and it was just an incredible experience.”

Alex Abrams

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.