Fairbanks speedskater will share TBI story at coaches clinic

Beth Bragg
Liam Ortega of Fairbanks glides across the ice on the speed skating oval at the Cuddy Family Midtown Park in Anchorage during the 5th annual AMH speedskate-skate ski duathlon on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. Ortega finished second in the race behind Adam Verrier. Ana Jager won the women's race. BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

On Saturday, 29-year-old Liam Ortega of Fairbanks will be the keynote speaker at a health and safety clinic that will cover a range of sports-related concerns like concussions, exercise-induced asthsma and hip injuries.

Ortega is an athlete, not a doctor or physical therapist, but he has a message to deliver to the assembled coaches, athletic trainers, nurses and others in attendance.

He said he'll talk about the value of setting goals, something he's a big believer in -- so much so that a couple of years ago, he started Driven to Move, a non-profit that encourages kids to get healthy through goal-setting. Whether a kid wants to become an Olympian or run a mile without stopping, Ortega thinks the best way to fulfill a dream is by setting and reaching daily goals.

The day after he delivers his speech, Ortega will fly to Milwaukee, where he will begin studying medicine and working as a technical director for a speedskating club there. It's the start of a new life for a man whose own Olympic dreams ended this winter at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials, where he did not qualify for the team.

The fact Ortega didn't achieve his goal doesn't diminish his message. He has simply switched tracks. Rather than spend four more years training and competing, he's trading his Olympic quest for the pursuit of a longtime career.

"In skating there's a ceiling," Ortega said. "Not necessarily in race results, but the ceiling is the clock. The clock, you can't stop. I'm not saying I'm old, that would be stupid -- I'm healthy, I'm strong -- but how long is that gonna last?

"I know whole-heartedly that it can end in a split second."


In the spring of 2008, Ortega skated to long-track personal bests in the 500 meters and 1,000 meters. In the fall of that year, as a member of the U.S. Speedskating team, he was training at Salt Lake City's Olympic Oval when life changed.

"I was about to start up another set of laps," he said, "and I woke up 30 hours later in the hospital."

Ortega was on the outside track, standing upright and just starting to roll. Another guy was on the inside track, going fast. The other guy lost control and crashed into Ortega.

"He hit me from behind going 40 miles an hour," Ortega said. "My head hit the ice. I fractured my skull and had subdural hematomas on the front and back of my brain."

He was taken to a hospital, had a seizure there and was medevacked to another hospital. He was put on life support and into a drug-induced coma.

"I learned this after the fact," he said. "It took my mom about a day to fly down (from Fairbanks). I asked her six or seven times why she was there."

Ortega, then 23, had a traumatic brain injury. The pain was unbearable. Doctors put him through test after test. He got bored and cranky. An elite athlete with four percent body fat, he dropped from 160 pounds to 144. When he left the hospital after a week, he looked emaciated -- but that was the least of his troubles.

"You break a leg, you're in a cast for six weeks and then you start rehab. It's such a common thing they can give you a prognosis down to the day of when you'll have full range, blah blah blah," Ortega said. "But with a brain injury, it's very different. When I first came to, I was only able to say one-word sentences. I would ask questions and forget about it right away."


Two years passed before Ortega felt able to drive safely. He lost his sense of smell, perhaps permanently. Yet two months after his injury, a CAT scan showed far more improvement than doctors hoped for.

"I even wrote down in my journal, (the doctor) said he's never seen anyone heal that fast," Ortega said. "I'm kind of proud of that."

At that point, he was told he could go for 15-minute walks as long as his heart rate stayed below 100.

"I'd go for a walk with my mom and only last seven minutes," he said. "I was super-weak physically, and the mind came back before the body."

He followed a deliberate process in an attempt to help his brain heal.

"I took every supplement that may stimulate positive nerve function," he said. "Cod liver oil, B vitamins. I was seeing a holistic doctor. I was eating more fruits and vegetables.

"I would play Sudoku. I would read until I'm tired. I was constantly trying to stress my system just slightly to see what I could do."


Less than two months after his accident, Ortega was back on the ice. He didn't make the 2010 Winter Olympic team -- he blamed over-training fueled by over-eagerness to return from his injury -- but in the 2010-11 season, Ortega won the America's Cup as the country's top domestic racer.

But the good results of that season came at a cost -- he was working as many as four jobs to support himself. He decided to take the 2011-12 season off and return to Fairbanks, where he started Driven to Move while also working on marketing and branding himself so he could find sponsors so when he returned to speedskating, he could give it his full focus.

"I realized if I was going to make the Olympic team for 2014, I had to find a better way," he said.

He started off strong but developed tendinitis in both knees. The next season, healthy again, he placed sixth overall at the Olympic trials, with top-12 results in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and missed making the team.


It was time for Ortega to look for a goal beyond speedskating, and he decided on a new path quickly.

At this weekend's clinic, Ortega will talk about why it's important to have goals, and he'll share the story of his injury and his comeback.

"His story just kinda gets kids' attention, and parents' attention," said Wally Wilson, a physical therapist who is the clinic's director. "It's about lessons learned in athletics and overcoming adversity."