RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil (AP) Freestyle skier Lais Souza pictured herself parading into the Olympic Stadium with the Brazilian delegation during the 2014 Winter Games opening ceremony. She had successfully switched from gymnastics to the high-flying sport, unexpectedly qualifying for the Sochi Games after just six months of practice.
It all ended two weeks before the last Winter Olympics, when she fell and hit her head on a tree during training in Utah . The former Olympic gymnast was paralyzed from the neck down and struggling to breathe on her own.
Four years later – after 11 months hospitalized in Miami, countless surgeries and constant care from her mother and nurses – Souza can bend her torso, slightly move her shoulders and regained some sensitivity on her elbows. Her once broken neck is stronger, and she can breathe with enough ease to become a successful motivational speaker. Now she faces an important step in her psychological recovery: watching the Winter Games from Pyeongchang, South Korea.
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”I remember watching some of my friends compete in Sochi, but I was still groggy from the medicines at the hospital,” the 29-year old Brazilian told the Associated Press at her modest home in Ribeirao Preto, a four-hour drive north of Sao Paulo. ”I definitely need to watch this time. I wasn’t expecting to qualify for Sochi, I was actually preparing for these games.”
Souza competed as a gymnast in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games in Athens and Beijing, but missed the 2012 Games in London due to a hand injury. As she lamented her absence, Brazil’s winter sports confederation saw a potential freestyle skier in the 5-feet-1 athlete, who had put a pair of skis only once while vacationing in Chile. She moved to Canada in July 2013 and qualified for the Games a few months later.
Witnesses said Souza was not doing any acrobatics or risky maneuvers when she crashed at Park City Mountain Resort on Jan. 27, 2014, 11 days before the opening ceremony. She has no recollection of the accident.
After nearly dying during the flight from Salt Lake City to Miami due to a blood clot, Souza struggled for months just to be fed and breathe. Her mother Odete stayed by her side.
In December 2014, Souza finally returned to Brazil and settled in her hometown.
”For a long time my life was between my bedroom and my bathroom,” Souza said.
She moves around pushed in wheelchair, and needs assistance for all of her basic necessities. Two nurses take shifts in flipping her in bed every two hours during her sleep to avoid neck injuries from lying too long in the same position.
Souza receives around $3,000 a month from a state pension for Brazilian Olympians and Brazil’s winter sports confederation, but the money is never enough to take care of all the medical expenses.
”This is a time of pain for our family,” Odete Souza said. ”This shows Lais never made money in gymnastics.”
Souza does not complain, though, and keeps a gymnast smile on her face most of the time.
Later this year, she and her mother will move to a bigger, wheelchair-accessible house. It was paid for in part by a local construction company as compensation for their consultation about adapting homes for others with wheelchairs.
Souza has an active social life again – she enjoys hanging out with friends, going to movies, sunbathing and watching sports on TV. She has worked as a motivational speaker at universities, private companies and the educational and sports institute owned by Brazilian soccer star Neymar.
In the future, she plans to open an institute to help quadriplegics.
”I have my little world that works,” she said.
But for the next two weeks she wants to watch as much of the Winter Olympics as she can.
”I was quite a warrior in these four years. I had bad moments, but I picked myself up. Four years ago I didn’t see much of the Olympics. Now I am much more disposed,” she said. ”I want to see the snow again. It is a beautiful world. I wish I was there in the Olympics to see it myself, but I still need to work more toward that goal. Maybe one day. Who knows?”
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org