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Not Traveling to Turin Would Hurt a Lot More

January 21, 2006|HELENE ELLIOTT

Maria Garcia is in pain only when she skates or breathes hard. As a short-track speedskater, that means she's in pain almost constantly.

Ligament and muscle damage related to a back injury often have her doubling over in agony on the ice, but the 20-year-old Carson native accepts that as the price she must pay to be an Olympian.

She'd been expected to qualify for the Salt Lake City team until a knee injury knocked her out of contention and relegated her to watching the Games on TV. While she cheered for her U.S. teammates she vowed she wouldn't miss a chance to compete in Turin.

"Seeing them skate was amazing and I wanted to be there," she said. "I wanted to go for it."

And so she ignored the lingering effects of two broken bones in her back and the loose rib that jabs at her stomach and made the Turin team at last month's U.S. short-track championships. Garcia, who trains at Glacial Gardens in Lakewood, won one of two 1,500-meter races and is an alternate at that distance. She's also in the 3,000-meter relay pool.

"I don't know how she did it," said her mother, Michelle. "She won the 1,500 and that's her worst race. It was really a surprise.

"I thought many times that she should quit. Until the middle of the Olympic trials, I kept telling her, 'You're not going to make it.' She went in knowing she needed three more months to heal. Her back really didn't feel good until August."

It still doesn't feel great, but Garcia would have felt worse if she hadn't pursued her dream.

"When I breathe, it hits me in the stomach and it really hurts," she said. "But I love to skate. Every athlete has their injuries and moments of pain, but you've got to push through it.

"This year, I was thinking, 'Not again. I'm not missing the Olympics again.' "

The youngest of three children and only girl, she took to the ice in Torrance as a figure skater when she was 7. She learned to do a double flip with the help of Danny Kwan, father of figure skater Michelle Kwan.

She tried speedskating after her mother saw a flier for a local speedskating club and noted the reasonable $3 fee.

"I absolutely hated the skates," Maria said, laughing. "They were uncomfortable and I hated them. But financially, figure skating was a struggle for my family, and I realized I was a power skater."

She returned to speedskating as a short-tracker when she was 11, and within three months was third in her age group in the U.S. She trained in El Segundo and in Lakewood, with the Ice Club DeMorra of the Southern California Speedskating Assn.

"I just loved the speed, the club and the environment," said Garcia, the only Turin short-track Olympian who trains at a local club instead of at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

She progressed rapidly, positioning herself for a spot on the 2002 Olympic team until she tore cartilage in her knee two weeks before the team was selected. She has also suffered several concussions, but she considers her back injury the worst, the result of crashing into a wall during a World Cup competition in Beijing in October 2004.

The first doctor who examined her said she was fine, but she figured something had been lost in the translation because she had no feeling on her left side. She was jounced across the city on a two-hour ambulance ride to another hospital, where an English-speaking doctor told her she'd broken two bones in her back and dispatched her to a hospital in Hong Kong by Medevac.

She spent a week there, immobile, but doctors told her they'd found nothing amiss. A doctor in Colorado Springs agreed. But she knew something wasn't right.

"She's a funny one," her mother said. "She takes pain well, and if she complains, I know there's got to be something wrong. Her back was so painful that even a T-shirt touching her was hurting her."

Maria continued to race, winning the U.S. junior championship and finishing ninth in the 2005 world junior competition, but the pain persisted. Finally, an orthopedist told her she'd fractured two bones in her back and ripped muscles from her sternum.

"I just tried to push it out of my mind," said Garcia, who won four U.S. junior titles.

She credits Mike Gervais, a Manhattan Beach sports psychologist, with helping her live with the injury, and she credits her

sponsor of two seasons, actor-comedian George Lopez, for easing the family's financial burden.

Paying for ice time, a trainer and gym fees is expensive, and she can't work because her training consumes much of her day. She got help from an unexpected source when Peter Smokler, the director of photography on Lopez's TV show and a recreational speedskater, told Lopez of his pastime and piqued the actor's interest.

"George asked him if there were any Latina speedskaters, and when he found out about me, he said he'd support me and sponsor me," Garcia said. "Without his support I couldn't do this. My family and I are very, very grateful."

She probably won't know if she'll get a spot on the Turin relay until the day of the race, and she might not get to race the 1,500. But whatever happens, she plans to attend Santa Monica College in April and eventually become a sports psychologist. She also plans to aim for the 2010 Olympic team.

"It's going to be very, very difficult, but I feel I have so much more to become as an athlete on an international level and an Olympic level, hopefully," she said. "I'll have to find a balance."

After all she has been through, juggling school and skating should be painless.

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