The Last Word

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:27 AM ET

The long, long walk to Turin just got a few steps shorter for an amazing lady named Deidra Dionne.

She officially is back in her game -- cleared to return as of yesterday morning -- just three months and seven days after shattering her neck in an aerials skiing training session in Australia.

Two vertebrae in her neck needed to be fused to a titanium plate and a bone graft was taken from her hip. That was just 99 days ago. Now she has 63 days to find her way, 63 days until the march in the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Games.

"My dream is to go back to the Olympics and bring home another medal," the bronze medal winner from Salt Lake City said in a gleeful conference call interview yesterday afternoon. "I want to go there and win.

"My goal has never been just to participate in the Olympics. But I'll definitely take a moment -- a moment I didn't take in Salt Lake -- and say 'wow' and appreciate that. The Olympics are not just a right, it really is a privilege and I realize now it can be taken away at any second."

But first, she has to get there. After a winning a bronze four years ago, there are no free passes. The kid from Red Deer, Alta., Sutter country, still has to qualify.

And until yesterday, when medical clearance came, none of it ever seemed anything more than a dream. Dionne talked about coming back, but no one really believed it to be possible. From the time she returned home after surgery, she was given the kind of instruction that most high-level athletes resist.

Do nothing, she was told. You can walk, but that's it. No running. No jogging. No weight lifting. No situps.

So she walked and walked and walked and obsessed about losing her conditioning. Forrest Gump didn't cover this much ground.

She walked for 4 1/2 hours every day, 25 kilometres or more, at a brisk pace. She walked so much that when she showed up for team fitness testing recently before she was cleared to come back, her level of body fat had actually reduced.

Now comes the next challenge. Peter Judge, who used to compete internationally and now runs the national program, will become Dionne's personal coach between now and Turin. The freestyle ski team is in China getting ready for the Olympics. Dionne will be heading to Penticton, B.C., with Judge to get back on the horse.

Not everybody at first agreed with her decision to continue on in freestyle skiing.

"My older brother lives in Sweden and he a got phone call from my parents when it first happened. When I first talked to him, I said 'It's going to be tough, six months to the Olympics," she said.

"He said 'You're going to keep going?'

"He was the only one who said anything. He was the only one I could trust to be honest."

And he was the only one she listened to and did the opposite.

"The worst-case scenario was, I might not walk again," Dionne said. "I'm not concerned that I'll forget how (to jump).

"I'd be a little bit naive to be the most confident person in the world now because I wasn't that to begin with. I like adversity. Give me something to overcome. I've never been much of a coaster. Those kind of things motivate me."

Now there are jumps to be made, some fear to overcome, no time to waste. There are four World Cup competitions between now and the Turin Games. All Dionne has to do is take part in one of them to make the Canadian team. Her podium finishes of last winter insure her of that.

And coming out of Salt Lake, after her surprise medal, she began to prepare for Turin almost immediately. She hired sports psychologist Penny Werthner to help her prepare for an Olympics where she will be a known instead of an unknown.

She had no idea then how important that decision was.

For the past several months, even before the injury, she was visualizing her time in Turin.

"I spent the last three months visualizing on the Olympic site," she said.

And suddenly, it's so real, so hard to believe. For now -- and don't try telling her differently -- Deidra Dionne is back in the medal hunt.


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