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Cuban paracyclist sets sights on London games

HAVANA — Damian Lopez was 13 when he tried to untangle his kite from electrical wires dangling over a street corner and accidentally touched a high-voltage cable.The 13,000 volts that coursed through his body cost him both his forearms, melted much of the skin from his face and left him in a coma from which doctors predicted he would never emerge.

"I could hear people saying, 'This one won't make it.' But I fought and I came out of it," Lopez said.

After four months in the hospital, Lopez came home with injuries so severe he had trouble walking, eating, speaking and even closing his eyes.

Twenty-two years later, Lopez is close to realizing an unlikely dream by representing Cuba at the 2012 London Paralympics in cycling, the sport that he says kept him from drowning in self-pity and despair.

"After the accident I didn't want to leave the house, but some friends came looking for me to play. That was key," Lopez said of his return to a go-go life of soccer, pigeon-raising, chess, pool, motorcycles and, most importantly, bicycles.

"It's the same today. I don't stop moving. I think I still have electricity in my arms," he joked.

It's been a long, tough road to pedal, and Lopez said he owes a debt to many people, including an American woman named Tracy Lea, who raised money for equipment and airfare and arranged to bring him to New York for free facial reconstruction surgery.

"I don't have the words to thank Tracy. I owe her so much," Lopez said.

The two met in 2003 when Lea visited Cuba for a race where both participated. Lea recalled how she, a self-described "pathetic bike mechanic," was struggling to change a tire trackside when Lopez appeared out of nowhere.

"Here Damian is a bilateral amputee at the elbow and he comes over and helps me," Lea told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "He took the Allen key, it's shaped like a T, and he just put it between his stumps ... and put the five bolts in, and then proceeded to put the wheel on my bike and check the chain tension, and off I went."

"I'm like, 'Oh man, this is embarrassing."'

A friendship struck up between Lopez and Lea, the mother of another disabled cyclist, and almost immediately she began to think about getting him help.

Lea, a 57-year-old consultant to nonprofit groups living in Taneytown, Maryland, got in touch with the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction in New York.

Despite decades of poor relations between Cuba and the United States, she was finally able to bring him to New York in 2011 for four excruciating surgeries that cost nearly $500,000, performed pro-bono by the Foundation. Doctors worked to reconstruct his nose, chin, mouth and eyelids. Today he can eat easier and close his left eye, which makes it much easier to handle the rush of air when cycling at speed.

"It was very painful. I went without sleeping for about seven days, but the care was the best," Lopez said.

Lea said other donations have come in as well. Hanger Prosthetics supplied the cup-shaped prosthetics that his arm stumps slip into when he's riding. Fuji Bikes and Shimano donated equipment, and Oakley provided sunglasses. And cyclists around the United States have ponied up cash.

"It's taken a global cycling village to make all this happen," she said.

Practically as soon as the last operation was completed in June, Lopez was back on the bike. In race after race his times have steadily improved and he's beating less-disabled competitors.

Lopez finished 15th out of 20 in his category in the 1-kilometer time trial at last month's world championships of paracycling in Los Angeles, and 19th in the pursuit.

"I can still improve my times," said Lopez, now 35.

Even with better results, he started training too late to qualify automatically for the Paralympic games, and thus must seek a wild-card entry from international cycling officials.

The Cuban Cycling Federation is supporting Lopez's bid for an invitation, and Lea said an answer is expected around mid-April.

Lopez's life has a clear before-and-after date: Nov. 6, 1989, the day of his accident.

Returning home from the hospital was like starting from zero. Gradually he recovered his strength and began walking again.

Then one day he tried out a bicycle. He fell off a few times, prompting his mother to beg neighbors to help keep him from riding for fear he could kill himself. But Lopez kept on pedaling and learned to steer with the points of his elbows.

By the age of 18 he was already taking part in street races in Havana.

"Since I was little I have always liked sports. I played soccer, I rode the bicycle and dreamed of the Olympic Games. That helped me greatly, physically and psychologically," Lopez said.

Since last summer, Lopez has been part of Cuba's disabled cycling team and from Monday to Friday lives in a room near a decaying state-run cycling track just outside the capital, where he practices daily.

On weekends he earns a little extra money repairing bikes at the modest home he shares with his 66-year-old mother and 42-year-old brother Abel. On the door to his room hangs a sign reading "Danger: Risk of electrocution," a friend's sardonic gift that delights Lopez to this day.

As he spoke, Lopez moved what is left of his arms with tremendous dexterity as he showed off the donated red track bicycle he keeps in his room, and the black touring bike in the patio, which has an electronic gearshift that he's still getting used to.

As Lopez talked emotionally about how cycling helped him rediscover his will to live, his sudden eagerness to cut the interview short spoke more than his words. Lopez had a date, he confessed.

"Finding a girlfriend is not easy, but a man doesn't have to be handsome on the outside but rather within," he said. "I can die now. I know what it is to love."

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.