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FASTER THAN EVER : Running Has Helped Put Amputee on Right Track

June 04, 1989|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

Dennis Oehler was despondent.

His right foot, crushed in an automobile accident, had been amputated. His fiancee, a girlfriend of 12 years, was unwilling, he said, to spend her life with a man whom she believed would be unable to care for himself. She left him.

Alcohol deadened the pain, he found, but couldn't make it go away. Nothing could.

"Suicide wasn't out of the question," he said. "There were times I thought I'd be better off dead."

Oehler's outlook changed dramatically, though, on a summer day in 1984, when a friend took the former high school soccer player to the International Games for the Disabled, which were being contested not far from Oehler's home in Valley Stream, N.Y.

What he saw startled him.

Oehler, whose leg had been amputated about 8 1/2 inches below the knee, walked with crutches through the stands while athletes with the same degree of amputation sprinted around the track.

Oehler, his competitive instincts suddenly rekindled, looked out at them and asked: "What's the world record?"

At the time, it was 12.8 seconds for 100 meters.

Last October in the Paralympics at Seoul, Oehler lowered it to 11.73 seconds, which poses no threat to Carl Lewis or Ben Johnson but is certainly an astounding time for a man wearing a prosthesis. His time, in fact, would be competitive in many high school dual meets.

"The times he has run are incredible," said Mike Collins, a javelin thrower who arranged for Oehler to train in Houston last month with Lewis, Collins' former teammate at the University of Houston. "If you didn't know it, you couldn't tell he was an amputee."

Oehler, 29, is convinced that he can run faster. A false start at Seoul, he said, wiped out probably the best start of his career. And when the race started legally, he said, he was one of the last runners out of the blocks.

"I probably would have run about an 11.3," he said.

Oehler, who also established world records at Seoul in the 200 meters and the 400 meters, hopes to lower his record in the 100, which seems most important to him, to fewer than 11 seconds in the 1992 Paralympics at Barcelona, Spain.

In an effort to improve, he will run this summer in open meets against able-bodied athletes.

"That's for two reasons," he said. "One, to push me to the limit, and also for people to say, 'Holy . . . , this guy is an amputee and he's finishing just behind guys who are going to college on full scholarships.' "

It is that ability to surprise people--and to educate them--that seems to motivate Oehler.

He had planned to end his running career after the competition at Seoul, he said.

"But I didn't realize the impact of the time I ran. I couldn't turn my back on the opportunity to show the public that just because you're disabled doesn't mean your life is over."

Once, Oehler needed to be convinced of that himself.

He was sure that his life, for all intents, had ended on the night of April 9, 1984, on an expressway between his home and the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.

In heavy rain, he and a friend were driving home from a National Hockey League playoff game between the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers when their car stalled in the right lane. Oehler, riding in the passenger seat, jumped out to push the car onto the side of the road.

"The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital with a doctor over me, telling me they might have to amputate my leg," he said.

Oehler was told that he had been hit by two cars. His right foot had been crushed under a tire.

For several months, he said, he wallowed in self-pity.

"When I lost my leg, I saw myself as being permanently, physically disabled, not being able to care for myself and having to depend on somebody for the rest of my life," he said. "I thought I was going to be on crutches or in a wheelchair the rest of my life."

Oehler runs with a lightweight prosthesis, manufactured in Laguna Hills, that re-creates the heel-to-toe action of a natural footstep, storing and then releasing energy to provide a smooth, even gait.

"If I had pants on, there would be no way you'd be able to tell I was an amputee," he said.

His opponents must have a difficult time believing it, too.

Oehler has never lost a 100- or 200-meter race, and was beaten once in the 400, he said, only because he had to slow down to readjust his prosthesis, which was slipping off his leg.

At Seoul, he lowered the world record in the 200 by almost four seconds, to 24.37 seconds, and took almost five seconds off the world record in the 400, lowering that standard to 56.25 seconds.

Oehler, who lives on Long Island with his wife and 19-month-old daughter, has twice been named athlete of the year by the United States Amputee Athletic Assn.

His one regret, he said, is that he was never timed before his accident, when he devoted much of his attention to soccer. "Can you imagine the impact it would have if I knew the time I ran in high school and I was just as fast now, or even if I was a little faster?" he said.

He has no way of knowing for sure, of course, but Oehler suspects that he probably is faster today.

"I know that in high school I never trained as hard as I am now," he said. "I'm in the best physical condition of my life, so it's very possible that I'm at least as fast, if not faster."

And he will devote himself in the next three years to running even faster. "I want to keep chipping away at the world record," he said.

And the misconceptions.

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