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Glendale Olympian returns with prize better than gold

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Michael Voudouris never expected to leave the Olympic Games with a medal dangling from his neck.

Instead of being preoccupied with what he might take home from Salt Lake City, the 41-year-old Olympian from Glendale focused his attention on the message he brought from New York — a story about triumphing over tragedy that he emblazoned on not one but two sleds.

“It allowed me a chance to explain what happened in the United States and in New York in particular,” Voudouris said last Thursday afternoon after finally returning to his 74th Avenue home following a whirlwind tour that brought him from Germany and Greece to Salt Lake City and back again over a span of weeks.

Although he was born in Queens, Voudouris holds dual citizenship and represented his father’s homeland, Greece, at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in the skeleton competition in which the athlete rides head-first on a sled down an ice-covered track at breakneck speeds.

But Voudouris had left his chances for a medal at Ground Zero. A professional EMT, he volunteered at the World Trade Center in the days following Sept. 11, but ended his service with medical problems that made his Olympic bid look impossible.

It wasn’t. Dashing expectations that he would come in last place — he had only made it into the Games by 0.01 second after securing his Olympic slot by a hair’s breadth at Europe’s qualifying rounds — he ultimately placed 23 out of 26.

Not bad for a man who had lost two months of training.

A former marathon runner, Voudouris stepped into the sport of skeleton through the back door as a free-lance sports photographer. When he wanted to interview and take pictures of a slider in Lake Placid, she refused to comply until he made his own run down the track. He soon began training to become a “slider” himself.

That was in 1996.

Voudouris had been ready to travel to Europe to prepare for the 2002 Olympics when the terrorist attack put all of his athletic plans on the back burner. When he heard the news Sept. 11, he hung an American flag outside his home, donned his EMT uniform and rode with his neighbor into Lower Manhattan in a car filled with medical supplies he had picked up at a local store.

Voudouris and a group of medical personnel ultimately made their way to a spot about a block from the rubble, taking over St. Charlie’s Bar and Restaurant to offer medical treatment and some comfort to the rescuers working at Ground Zero.

“We had a fully functioning emergency room and a bar and restaurant,” Voudouris said. “The beer taps were going.”

But when the impromptu operation was ordered to shut down five days after the attack, the hours he had spent alongside the smoldering ruins began to show themselves through ailments of his own, like a cough that worsened into bronchitis.

“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t work out,” Voudouris recalled.

He also suffered a scratched cornea on his second day on the scene, and ultimately endured a three-day root canal after fracturing his teeth from grinding his jaw at night.

After losing two months of training, he attended a memorial for the paramedics who died Sept. 11, where everyone was left to ponder what to do next, how best to honor the memories of their comrades.

“I said if I was sliding, I would memorialize them in my sled,” he said.

So the next day he boarded a plane to Europe and resumed his training.

But he was no longer competing just for himself or his country.

Voudouris had transformed his sled into a memorial for the rescuers who perished at the World Trade Center. Using contact paper he cut out an abstract design of the Twin Towers along with the Star of Life — the ambulance symbol — and the names of the nine emergency medical workers who died there, which he set onto his sled for the world to see.

But the markings on his sled defied Olympic regulations, and he learned three days before the competition that his memorial would likely disqualify him.

“I had to either remove it, which would have been an affront, cover it over or get a new one,” he said.

So he got a new one. Borrowing the sled of an American slider, Trevor Christie, he bought 22 decals of the Greek flag and stacked them up in the shape of two towers, making sure the design stayed within regulations.

For Greece, a country where Voudouris is the sole skeleton competitor, finishing three slots above last place in the Olympics represented an achievement by itself.

But for the families of the paramedics whose memories he honored, the impact went far deeper.

“According to them, it accomplished more than I could ever imagine,” Voudouris said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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