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It's All Downhill for This Skier

June 10, 1988|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

The sight of one skier, Greg Mannino, was unforgettable that gusty February day in Calgary, Canada--even for a summit meeting like the Winter Olympics, where images of high-flying derring-do are a dime a dozen.

But the Mannino image was both dazzling and poignant. There was the 26-year-old competitor from Yorba Linda, his poles held out like wings, his body weaving and gliding, darting down the flagpole-marked, zigzag giant slalom course in Calgary.

On one leg.

It was an astounding vignette that millions of Americans saw on television--a fleeting glimpse of Mannino in the Feb. 21 run that won him a silver medal in the disabled class.

And, nearly four months later, Mannino remains somewhat awe-struck by the Olympic experience. "When it happens, when you're on that (winners') stand, you can't really describe the feeling," said Mannino, home this week to attend his sister's wedding and receive hometown accolades from the City Council and Yorba Linda Middle School.

But Mannino, who lost his left leg nine years ago in an accident, has a credo that may explain his skiing prowess the past few years on the national and international circuit.

"A lot more people are beginning to understand that we can do things as athletes that only a few years ago might have seemed impossible dreams," Mannino said. Snow skiing isn't the only sporting endeavor these days for the muscular, barrel-chested Mannino. He water skis, also on one leg, and, wearing his artificial leg, he can also run, bicycle, surf and skateboard.

It is as it should be: Mannino has always been a natural athlete. As a junior at Fullerton's Troy High School, he was on the football and wrestling teams. His goal then was to seek a career in the military--one as tough as they come, "like the Marines or the Green Berets."

In the summer of 1979, such hopes were dashed with devastating suddenness. He was one of three youths working on a metal ladder to trim palm trees, when the ladder slipped and came in contact with a power line. One of the youths was killed instantly.

Mannino was severely burned, particularly his legs. Skin grafts and other treatment were successful on his right leg and other parts of his body. But his left leg had to be amputated above the knee.

Although he was able to finish his studies (graduating from Fullerton's La Vista High School), he was still in emotional shock. "I felt really down. I stayed on crutches all that time and felt--you know--helpless and dependent. I couldn't do a lot of things then, even the simplest things like carrying a glass of milk.

"I felt so much the victim. I kept thinking, 'Why me?' I had the feeling that there wasn't much ahead for me, that I was all washed up."

But therapy sessions at UCI Medical Center were bringing him in contact with other amputees, encounters that slowly, but profoundly, changed his outlook. "These were people who were worse off than me, some who had lost more than one limb. Yet they didn't give up. Compared to them, what I had was like a cakewalk.

"What really did it, I think, were the people (therapists and other amputees) who kept pushing me to get back into sports, to get physically active again," Mannino recalled.

Two years after the accident, Mannino was back on the slopes as a "recreational skier," joining other amputees in treks to Lake Tahoe ski areas.

"I was still pretty weak. I kept falling, but I kept at it," said Mannino, who then used "outriggers"--crutches connected to foot-long ski tips--which provide more balance than regular ski poles. He also had to overcome another disadvantage: The big toe of his right foot had also been amputated after the 1979 accident.

Once he was fitted with the artificial left leg--one of the newer, lightweight models--he was able to greatly accelerate his training, including bicycling up to 40 miles a day. "I didn't want to just ski for fun. By then, I wanted to get back into competing again."

His rise as a competitive skier has indeed been dramatic. By 1985 he was already skiing in slalom and other events for the disabled at national competitions. In 1986 he won four bronze medals at a world meet in Sweden. Last year, he was first in the giant slalom and downhill events in the nationals and second in the same two events at the internationals.

Mannino's achievement at Calgary in February was especially sweet.

For one thing, his parents, Guy and Patty Mannino, watched from the sidelines when their son made his giant slalom run and received his silver medal (on the awards stand next to gold medalist Alexander Spitz of West Germany and bronze recipient Fritz Berger of Switzerland).

For another, the 1988 Olympic imprimatur--this is the second Winter Games to host an exhibition competition for the disabled--has helped bolster the image of the handicapped as capable of richly productive lives, including the most arduous sports.

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