Ex-Olympian Cliff Meidl embodies Rose Parade's inspirational point

 Ex-Olympian Cliff Meidl embodies Rose Parade's inspirational point
Cliff Meidl overcame a construction accident to become an Olympic athlete. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

The nightmares haven't stopped, not since Cliff Meidl, operating a jackhammer on a construction site in the South Bay in 1986, struck three unmarked high-voltage lines that flashed 30,000 volts of electricity through his body and exploding out of his head, feet and back.

Meidl was blasted out of the hole he'd been working in, fell back in, and was jolted again when he hit the jackhammer. His heart stopped, there and in the ambulance that rushed him to the hospital and toward a life that would never be the same, toward multiple surgeries and doctors' ominous predictions that they'd have to amputate his legs above his mangled knees to save his life.


Worse than the nightmares were the dreams, haunting and taunting, images of the active life he led growing up in Manhattan Beach and the strong body that moved powerfully at his command.

"I'd have dreams of me running on the beach," he said, "and then I'd wake up to look down at my legs and things."

What he saw in those first dark days were ugliness and gaps on his right foot where two toes used to be. His legs were saved by innovative muscle-graft surgery performed by UCLA reconstructive plastic surgeon Malcolm Lesavoy but were disfigured. Meidl was reluctant to wear board shorts again. "You can imagine being ashamed of yourself and going in front of all these competitive guys and girls — that was something I did not want to do," he said.

It took him years to realize that although he couldn't run he could still soar, that his scars would become the map of an improbable and courageous journey that led him to the Olympics and, on New Year's Day, will land him on a float in the Rose Parade.

Inspired by pleas from his younger brother, Norman, to ignore the weakness in his legs and use his upper-body strength — and aware American kayaker Greg Burton had club feet and couldn't run but won two Olympic gold medals — Meidl took up flatwater kayaking and twice made the U.S. Olympic team. Fellow athletes chose him to carry the flag into the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Games. He didn't win a medal but earned the satisfaction of doing the best he could, a huge confidence booster. Later, he would gain a new purpose that will thrust him back into the spotlight.

Meidl will ride on a Rose Parade float sponsored by DigAlert, an organization that's funded by utility companies and emphasizes the importance of calling 811 to locate electric, gas and other utility lines before digging anywhere. Promoting workplace safety is Meidl's new calling. He benefits from connecting with audiences, and they learn great lessons about safety and the power of resilience.

"My first mission is to promote awareness for people about safe digging practices, but if I can help anybody get through any type of adversity, if I can inspire them just to be the best people they can be, that's my job when I get up there and speak," said Meidl, 48, who lives in the South Bay with his wife, Lisa, and 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Sara.

"We really have to look ourselves in the mirror and look at who we are and look at the tools we have. We can't compare ourselves against the Joneses. We have to utilize what we have."

For John Naber, the Olympic swimmer and motivational speaker who leads Southern California's Olympic community, Meidl is a perfect fit with the Rose Parade's theme of "Inspiring Stories."

"He demonstrates the power of being inspired by others, and he also demonstrates the power of inspiring others through his own life," Naber said. "He has dedicated the rest of his personal time inspiring others to be more safe and more careful on the job and if they do find themselves in a physical-challenged condition, not to let that limit them. He doesn't let it hold him back."

The only way Meidl's Rose Parade experience might have been better is if he could have shared the day with the late Louis Zamperini, his friend, known to the world for having survived atrocious treatment while a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. Zamperini's life was chronicled in the book "Unbroken," and Angelina Jolie's movie with the same name is scheduled to open Thursday.

Zamperini, a runner at USC and 1936 U.S. Olympian, was named the parade's grand marshal but died in July at 97; his family will represent him on New Year's Day. Meidl and Zamperini had become close after Naber brought them together, bonding over their alma mater — Meidl earned an MBA at USC — their Olympic experiences and the hardships they overcame.

"It would have been just amazing," Meidl said of having Zamperini there. "You can learn a lot from Louie. He had that fighting mentality and you can see it in his eyes that he really wanted it and had to put his life to a test, not only to get through that adversity but to cope with what he had to cope with coming home from war and being a prisoner of war for all that time. It's just a phenomenal story.

"I remember one time Louie and I were on Hollywood Boulevard and we'd just had lunch…. Here were people from all walks of life looking at the Hollywood stars and I thought to myself, 'Wait a second. These people are coming to look at all these stars but they don't even know that there's a man standing five feet from them that is more famous than many of those people were.'"


Meidl's own gallant story continues to unfold. He can't stand very long and still limps, and he hopes his patched-together knees, which lost one-third of the bone in each joint, will hold out. "I just hobble very fast," he said, "and I've learned to go at it from that standpoint."

Besides his safety industry role and a recent endorsement deal with a manufacturer of portable emergency oxygen devices, Meidl works in real estate and family asset management. He paddles his kayak when he can find time. "Just being on the water, being a part of something and having a dedication to something is what makes our lives completely whole, I believe," he said.

His daughter, with a child's curiosity, sometimes touches his foot or outlines the scars on his back and asks what happened. He tells her he got burned in an accident when he was young.

"She knows there's something not right with her dad, something different," he said. "But how I want to raise Sara is that I want her to be able to fight through any fight she's going to face. My goal is to be able to provide her those tools and give her the confidence that no matter what her dream is in life, it doesn't matter, she should try to accomplish it."

With him as an inspiration, she has a great start.

Twitter: @helenenothelen