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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Year of Tragedy After Olympic Gold

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Each day at 7 A.M., Lina Cheryazova begins anew the struggle to put her life back together. In the early-morning darkness of winter, she climbs aboard a crowded bus on the outskirts of Tashkent that takes her to a folk doctor's apartment. There, she drinks potions of berries, grasses and twigs, hoping to cure the effects of a traumatic head injury she suffered in July.


Cheryazova, the 1994 Olympic champion in women's freestyle aerial skiing, has fallen a long way since she climbed the medal stand in Lillehammer just nine months ago. The near-fatal spill she took last summer during training shattered her career as the world's best aerial skier and prolonged a heartbreaking year that took its first tragic turn shortly after she was awarded the first gold medal in her country's history.


But with the tenacity that was her trademark in freestyle skiing, a sport in which skiers take off from a ramp and perform flips and twists before landing, Cheryazova is beating the odds in her recovery.


The odds are daunting. She is short of funds, lacks adequate medical attention, scrimps on food and, as an ethnic Russian in Uzbekistan, finds herself ostracized in a society whose future is now being charted by its Moslem majority.


Cheryazova's run of misfortune in 1994 began in Lillehammer in February. Just hours after she won the gold medal, she found out her mother had died of an injury sustained in a factory accident in Tashkent 11 days earlier. It had been her mother's last wish, Lina was told, that the news be kept from her until after she won the gold medal. In a cruel turn of fate, the moment of Cheryazova's greatest triumph became a prelude to her deepest sadness. Her grief was made even more heart-wrenching when her father told her that shoddy medical care and lack of medicine were at fault for 46-year-old Svetlana Cheryazova's death.


Cheryazova's roller-coaster ride through 1994 took its most tragic turn just four months later. On a final training run at the U.S. Olympic Training Complex' aerial ski venue in Lake Placid, New York, she caught her ski on the ramp just before taking off, lurched off balance and rose 35 feet in the air before slamming back down onto the lip of the ramp, with her head taking the brunt of the blow.


Cheryazova lay in a coma for nine days at a Burlington, Vermont, medical center. Had the accident occurred in Uzbekistan, she likely would have died.


As it was, Cheryazova got top-notch medical attention, much of it free, from the medical center and from the Gaylord Rehabilitation Center, in New Haven, Connecticut.


The heavy blow to Cheryazova's head had caused permanent damage to two areas of her brain. The most serious, a tear in her inner brain tissue, has affected her motor functions -- in particular, her ability to perform new tasks, according to Frank Palermo, the doctor at Gaylord who oversaw her rehabilitation.


It is unclear to what extent the brain damage will affect Cheryazova's ability to jump. In the United States, during the first three months of what will an 18-month rehabilitation period, Cheryazova showed remarkable progress. Undaunted by her injury, she took obstacles to her recovery as challenges, and quickly relearned skills such as running backward and walking on her hands. "I have never seen anybody work so hard," said Palermo, a team physician for the U.S. ski team since 1986.


But since arriving home in late September, Cheryazova's life has been one disruption after another, putting at risk her return to sport. Should she be able to jump again, it seems more and more certain she will need to find another country for which to compete. Fearful of the Uzbeks' rising nationalist sentiment, ethnic Russians, including top athletes, are leaving Uzbekistan en masse, mostly for Russia.


Cheryazova, who speaks no Uzbek even though she has lived in Uzbekistan her whole life, is caught up in the transition. "Most of my friends have already left," the unassuming and deferential athlete said. "They see there's no future for Russians. 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."


Training conditions are appalling for the Olympic champion. She jumps on trampolines with holes because the Uzbek Sports Committee can't afford the $250 replacement cost. To get to the sports hall, she has a 40-minute commute on bus and subway. Her monthly stipend from the sports committee in December was the equivalent of about $13 -- just enough, she says, to cover the month's transportation costs.


Deliveries of meat and vegetables once a week from the sports committee help make ends meet. Cheryazova's father is even selling off his late wife's clothes to make some extra money.


Cheryazova's biggest sponsors have pulled out in the wake of her injury, citing their own "financial problems," according to her coach, Dmitri Kavunov. Unpaid medical bills for the skier's treatment in the United States are running at about $100,000 -- money the Uzbek Sports Committee does not have. This month, following up a promise made by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, the IOC covered $25,000 of the bills.


Uzbek doctors fear Cheryazova may never fully recover if her living conditions are not improved. "With such an injury, they should be driving her everywhere. Something could happen on the metro," said a doctor familiar with Cheryazova's case, who refused to be identified. "And she gets 400 som a month (about $13) when she should be eating three times a day. It's too little."


In the absence of adequate medical attention, Cheryazova has turned to Volodya Gann, a self-taught specialist in folk medicine. He makes brews out of roots and twigs that he collects from the mountains on the border with China. A soft-spoken man, Gann is bitter about the state of medicine in Uzbekistan. "Because we don't have medicine, we use grasses," he said. "The intelligent Russian doctors have left. There's no diagnostic equipment, nor anyone to use it."


A woman who once soared high above the rest of the pack with her patented triple flips, Cheryazova is now hesitant and unsure in her jumping. Yet she drives relentlessly on, hoping to push the envelope in her recovery just as she pushed the limits of aerial skiing.


"I say to myself I must train, compete and get good results, and then life will get better," she said. Her goal is to return to competition by the end of 1995 -- and to make it to her third Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. There, she has been promised by Samaranch, she will carry the Olympic torch.