SAN MARCOS — James Ortiz was tearing up. Not sobbing, just tearing up. Has he always been this passionate, this emotional about things?
“I’ve been emotional, where I get really excited, but I never really cried,” Ortiz said, remembering his life before the accident. “But, in a way, there was never any reason for me to cry.”
On June 5, Ortiz, while riding his bike, slid under a waste services truck in an effort to avoid a collision. One of the truck’s wheels crushed Ortiz’ right leg. Doctors were forced to amputate a few inches below the knee.
The healing is just beginning for Ortiz and the controlled, but emotionally charged tears are part of that process.
“It helps me when I cry, because it makes me think about how happy I was and how happy I will be, when I start winning again,” Ortiz said.
Winning is the key. As an athlete, Ortiz has been conditioned to know that to win is to move forward. Be it a heat, a final, or in this case, life.
Ortiz, who is Texas State’s school record holder in the 1,500 meters, took the first step towards his goal Tuesday by taking his first real step with two feet since the accident. Ortiz’ doctors put a practice prosthetic on Ortiz’ leg for his first steps. It wasn’t the cathartic, jubilant moment one might expect.
Ortiz said that putting on the prosthetic just reminded him that he doesn’t have a leg. He has made a point to be aware of the leg’s absence; he says that even in his dreams he doesn’t have a leg. But taking a step on something other than his own leg obviously made the situation that much more real.
Then again, things have been real from the start. In the first few days after the accident, Ortiz wasn’t sure he’d ever even try to run again. It quickly set in just how hard that would be, but that all changed when the letters started rolling in. From California, Colorado, Russia and even Europe, well-wishers who read Ortiz’ story on the Internet began flooding him with encouragement, words of wisdom, anything to boost his spirits. “When I started opening all the letters, I knew there was nothing to think about, I was going to run,” Ortiz said.
The letters were also the reason Ortiz posted on several running and Texas State-related message boards in late July.
“I just wanted to find a way to say thank you,” Ortiz said. “There’s no way I could write all those thank you notes.”
Ortiz had other thank yous that he can barely express even though the people are right next to him. His brother Reuben, who was also a member of the Texas State track program, has been at James’ side since the first moments after the accident. Reuben’s was the first face James saw in the hospital. According former Texas State assistant coach Blaine Wiley, Reuben quit his job as a track coach at Gonzales High and is scheduled to take a graduate assistant position at Texas State in order to be around his younger brother.
Trying to talk about Reuben’s role in his life since the accident again brought tears to the young runner’s eyes.
Ortiz has also had the benefit of another Texas State track athlete, his girlfriend Tenley Determan, who has been at his side nearly constantly. Determan aids in the care of the leg, which is still healing. She was also at the hospital each night with Ortiz.
“It would’ve been so hard without her,” he said.
The process of working back will take time, and lots of it. Lots of time, of course, means lots of anticipation and restlessness—which he’s sick of. When his accident happened, Ortiz was already waiting. He didn’t run this year because of tendonitis and had decided to redshirt a year. That left Ortiz waiting to utilize his final year of eligibility — waiting to make a last run at an NCAA Regionals berth in 2007.
Ortiz’ plan now will take at least two years, and the goal is to score in the Southland Conference meet—in other words, help the team. He’ll sit-out in 2007 to heal and train. Ortiz already spends time in deep-tissue massage just stretching the skin that was grafted to his right leg. That skin also has to be toughened because of the prosthetic.
He’ll be on the bike constantly, trying to stay in shape. Ortiz will even have to learn how to shift his weight all over again. Then he’ll return to the track, where extensive training awaits.
After all that, and assuming there aren’t any complications, Ortiz will apply for a rare sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA. Even as he speaks about it, Ortiz shakes and taps his left leg regularly, a leg that burns for activity, a leg that burns to hit the track.
And it’ll keep burning as he waits. Again.
He’ll do much of his waiting in Texas State’s Endzone Complex, a building that has become a refuge. The complex houses the Bobcats’ track and football offices and training facilities. Before the accident, it had been a place for Ortiz to train, talk with Wiley and just be himself.
His first trip back was an emotional one. He saw Walter Musgrove, the Texas State defensive back who battled Hodgkin’s disease in the offseason, shortly after coming into the complex. A barbecue originally scheduled to help raise funds for Musgrove was altered shortly after the accident to allow Ortiz to benefit from the event as well. Seeing Musgrove brought forward some of the tears that had become common as he thanked Musgrove for letting him share in the fundraiser.
Not long after that first trip, though, Ortiz found that the peace he found in the complex hadn’t changed because of the loss of his leg. “I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I just feel like I’m at home.”
While he wants to focus on getting back on the track at Texas State first, the thought that he could break a world record as a paralympian is on the horizon. Ortiz’ Texas State record is 3:48.35. The fastest time run in the 2002 Sydney Paralympian Games in any of the amputee classes was 3.58.25 by former University of Florida runner Robert Evans. It was a world record for the class.