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Road to Victory Began in Tragedy

Freak mishap cost Jami Goldman her feet, but now she holds world titles in track.

April 01, 2000|JIM HOLLANDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her Adidas commercial shows a young woman running, loudly huffing and puffing, brown hair tied back, sweat beading on her brow. The celebrity it brings her symbolizes for Jami Goldman that, as an athlete, she has arrived.

The 31-year-old Huntington Beach resident began competitive running less than three years ago, and already owns world records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes.

Her good fortune has been especially bountiful in the last year. She set the three world marks during a series of international races. She stands a good chance of running for her country this summer in Sydney, Australia.

"I am the fastest T43 track runner in the world," she says matter-of-factly, referring to her category of below-knee, double amputee. "It's an amazing feeling. It's not something I would have ever thought would be part of my life."

And who would? Who could imagine that one moment you're driving home from a holiday ski trip with a friend, in a hurry to get her to work on time, and the next moment your car is stuck in a snowbank during a Christmas blizzard on a road that is not being patrolled? One day Goldman was a fit 19-year-old freshman at Arizona State University, studying communications and perfecting her downhill skiing skills.

Weeks later, she would be a T43. Years later, she would be a world-class runner.

For Goldman, it is impossible to separate her achievements from what happened Dec. 23, 1987, the day her life made a turn down the wrong road.

*

Goldman and her friend Lisa Barzano were headed home to Phoenix after a Colorado ski trip. They thought the route was a shortcut. In fact, it was a logging road that closed later that day for the winter.

The snow was coming down hard about 12:30 p.m. when she heard a thud and the vehicle came to a sliding halt.

"I don't know if we hit a snowbank, if we slid, or if we hit some ice,"' Goldman said. "We got out and tried to rock it back and forth. There was a huge snowstorm, and we had tennis shoes on. . . . We tried to dig it out with our ice picks, but it wasn't going anywhere."

They gave up and got back in the car, certain they would be rescued before long. They thought the road was well-traveled.

"We stayed there the whole day, and it snowed. And the next morning when we woke up, it was still snowing. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, it snowed profusely, I mean just out of control."

On that first day in the snow, the women turned the ignition on to use the heater. By morning the battery was dead.

The only food they had was a couple of cinnamon rolls and a six-pack of frozen soda. They had a backgammon set, and played during the first days.

Saturday morning, the start of their fourth day stuck somewhere in the wilds of northeastern Arizona, was the first time they saw the sun. Goldman recalls that they realized that no one was coming, so they tried to walk out wearing ski boots.

"We walked maybe 20, 30 feet, I don't remember exactly how far, and Lisa collapsed, she fell in the snow," Goldman said. They discussed whether Goldman should take off on her own.

"I didn't want to leave her, she didn't want me to leave her and I didn't want to go out into the wilderness by myself. I didn't know where I was."

The buzzing of search and rescue helicopters is one of Goldman's most haunting memories of the ordeal. They heard them often. Each time, Barzano would slip her swollen feet into Goldman's much larger ski boots and go outside to clean off the hood, hoping to make it more visible from the air.

But no rescuers came.

By the seventh day, Goldman's feet had become too swollen to fit into her ski boots. The women knew early on that they were having problems with their feet. They would sit up in the back seat and slip their feet under each other's buttocks. They would also rub and massage each other's toes to warm them up.

Everything was always wet, Goldman recalls. There was never enough heat to dry the socks.

They each had about four T-shirts, a couple of sweaters, a jacket, long johns and pants and they wore it all every night. They would sleep alongside one another to stay warm.

When the sun was out, they would rest their feet on the dashboard, hoping that radiant heat from the windshield would warm them.

They would also melt snow in small plastic bags placed on the dash, then drink the precious water in small sips. On Thursday of the second week, they found a bag of salted peanuts in a back ashtray. They each ate five a day.

During the second week, the days began to merge. Goldman says she slipped in and out of consciousness. She had a watch that kept the date, and she recalls making an effort to be aware of days. Barzano kept a journal.

Goldman said that she and Barzano always expected to survive and never lost hope. "One of us was always there to give the other support."

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