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Tragedy hits hard at Texas State: Track standout lost part of right leg in bicycle accident


San Antonio Express-News (06/08/2006)
By Jerry Briggs

Overcome with emotion as he lay in an Austin hospital bed, Texas State University distance runner James Ortiz grabbed the hand of his assistant track coach and pulled him close.

"I'm sorry ... I'm sorry," Ortiz said. "Take my scholarship and use it for someone else."

Said Blaine Wiley, the Texas State assistant: "It just breaks your heart. He was sorry he let his teammates down."

Grief far outweighs disappointment within the Bobcats' athletic community this week.

Ortiz, 21, a former Uvalde High School track standout who holds the Texas State record in the 1,500 meters, lost part of his right leg in a bicycle accident Monday in San Marcos.

"It's probably one of the saddest and most tragic things I've ever seen," Wiley said. "You look at it and say, 'Why?'"

Ortiz, a senior, sat out the 2006 track season as a redshirt, a means of extending his college eligibility for one year. He had hoped to use the extra year of preparation to make a bid for the NCAA track championships in 2007.

Those dreams were shattered Monday afternoon. Riding down a sidewalk incline on his way to a summer school class, Ortiz apparently couldn't stop in time to avoid hitting a waste services truck on an intersecting street. He responded by going into a slide.

When he skidded underneath the truck, a tire ran over his right leg, severing his foot and part of his lower leg. Police did not file charges.

Ortiz remains in Brackenridge Hospital in Austin after undergoing three surgeries to clean and stabilize his leg. A hospital spokeswoman described his condition as fair, indicating stable vital signs.

He's expected to spend at least another week to 10 days in the hospital. Doctors might have to remove more of his right leg to expedite his recovery.

"The only thing we're hoping is that he gets to keep his leg below the knee," said Reuben Ortiz, James' older brother and a former Texas State distance runner. "They won't know about that until Friday. They'll have another surgery then."

When she received the news from Wiley, Texas State head track coach Galina Bukharina was in Sacramento, Calif., for this year's NCAA track championships, which began Wednesday. Two Texas State athletes, triple jumper Jacque Iwuchukwu and long jumper Camilla Davis, are competing.

After the call from Wiley, Bukharina sat down at the rental-car office and wept.

"We couldn't drive because we were crying," she said. "We couldn't even move. Right now, I'm thinking about the words I will tell him when I see him. I don't know what I will say. I will have to see his eyes first, and then I will find the words."

Reuben Ortiz said the pain is taking a toll on his brother.

"It's draining on him," Reuben Ortiz said. "He's a strong guy. But little by little, it's draining."

Last year, as a junior, Ortiz set a Texas State record with a time of 3 minutes 48.35 seconds in the 1,500. He was honored as an All-Southland Conference performer. He completed four years of cross-country eligibility last fall.

Bukharina said she plans to look into the possibility of adding Ortiz to her coaching staff next season in some capacity that would enable him to pay for his final two semesters of school.

Ortiz, acquaintances said, had expressed interest in coaching after getting his degree.

"We will be there for him for as long as he needs us," Bukharina said. "We will always be next to him, and we will not let him go through this by himself."

More than a dozen Texas State track team members showed up at the hospital Monday night. They brought his track jersey and a Bobcats bobblehead doll, a whimsical symbol of the team mascot.

"The school has been real supportive," Reuben Ortiz said. "A lot of people have come by to give us their best wishes. We've tried to keep it to a minimum today so he can get his sleep."

In a statement, Texas State president Denise Trauth praised James Ortiz as a "remarkable young man who has exemplified determination and competitive spirit during his career as an athlete."

School athletic director Larry Teis called Ortiz "a leader for our athletics program."

"We want to do everything we can to help James and his family during this difficult time," Teis said.

Reuben Ortiz said the family has no health insurance and that medical bills could become a concern.

"Right now, my mom (Pura Ortiz) doesn't even want to think about it," he said.

Wiley said insurance for Ortiz as a scholarship athlete would not cover his medical expenses because the accident was not related to athletics.

The school has set up a fund to provide assistance. Donations can be forwarded to the Texas State Athletic Department, 601 University Drive, San Marcos 78666. Checks can be made out to Texas State Athletics.

Additional information can be obtained by calling 512-245-2114.