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Photos courtesy U.S. Speedskating
U.S. speedskater Liam Ortega, shown before his accident, likely won't be competing in this year's early World Cup races.

KEARNS — When Liam Ortega takes a bite of chocolate, he knows it's sweet.

Savoring the chocolaty goodness, however, is something the aspiring Olympic speedskater can't do.

Not since Sept. 3 when a freak accident during a training session sent him to the ice and fractured his skull, leaving him near death following seizures and swelling of the brain on both the back and front.

It also — temporarily, he hopes — robbed him of his sense of smell. Nothing, not even the rancid stench of a well-used set of skates, triggers a response when held an inch from his nose.

"That's the weirdest thing about it all," Ortega said. "I can't smell anything."

That his sense of smell, and the way it affects his sense of taste, is missing is just one of the lingering complications since he slammed onto the ice. He has lost more than 10 pounds as a result of the injuries, and he still walks and moves gingerly. The headaches that came with loud noises or bright lights have mostly disappeared, and he said he's no longer taking medications to deal with the pain.

"Each day is an improvement," said Ortega, a 23-year-old from Fairbanks, Alaska, who now calls Utah home. "Every time I've been tested there has been improvement. So that's encouraging."

Indeed. But how Ortega got to this point is nothing short of a miracle, he said.

During a training session at the Olympic Oval, Ortega and several teammates were taking a few slow recovery laps in the outer lane. On the inside lane, other speedskaters were being more aggressive in their workout.

But when a skater from Canada had one of his skates slip free during a max-effort interval, it sent him careening out of control across the ice and toward the outer lane — where Ortega and his teammates were unaware of the incoming 40-mile-per-hour mass.

In what Ortega now says is a "fortunate" path, the tumbling skater crashed directly into the back of Ortega's legs, flipping him backward. Without a helmet, Ortega toppled over the fallen skater and struck his head on the rock-solid ice.

"Out of a large group," Ortega said, "he only hit me. It could have been much worse. ... I don't remember anything from that day, until Wednesday of the next week."

What he's been told, though, is kind of scary.

After being unconscious for a few moments, he woke up and seemed to be doing OK. He was talking with coaches, teammates and trainers who were helping him.

While being transported by ambulance to Jordan Valley Hospital, the swelling of his bruised brain sent him into seizures and resulted in a Life Flight trip to University Hospital.

"There were people on the ice immediately, and they moved fast," Ortega's mother, Kate, said. "I think they recognized how serious it was, and I really can't say how great the care he got has been."

As an Olympic-level athlete, Ortega's heart rate was off-the-charts low. Hospital staff reportedly needed to recalibrate their monitoring system so the alerts would stop sounding.

Competing in this year's early World Cup races is most likely not going to happen for Ortega. Taking a few weeks off of training will drain almost anyone of the competitive edge they have on the ice. Having a catastrophic brain injury makes the recovery an even bigger challenge.

Currently, Ortega said, doctors will not allow him to run, jump or even lift weights of more than 10 pounds.

"I've been stretching a lot," he said. "I'm doing a lot of goofy things to try to stay in shape a little bit."

Those things include climbing stairs in a crouched position like a speedskater might

Until Monday, Ortega had not even been back to the Olympic Oval. When he arrived, he was greeted by dozens of skaters thrilled to see him back at the facility.

Joining them on the ice, however, is still a ways off.

"I still have to get another (CT scan) and get cleared by the doctors," he said. "I'm considering biking this week. But my energy is through the roof."

Slowly but surely, Ortega is making his way back to the ice that has given him so much life — and, ironically, nearly took it from him.

He said he hopes to compete in the national championships later this season, and "this might be overly ambitious," he said, "but I'm not counting this season out. When I get cleared, I'll still be pretty patient out on the ice ... but I feel my strength and skating ability will return."

Until then, Ortega is content with doing the little things — like sticking a pair of recently worn skates to his nose and smiling, just to gross out his teammates.

"We've had some fun experimenting with that," his mother said.

The real fun, though, will come when he slides across the ice for the first time since the accident.

"There's like this great energy that I'm feeling," he said. "There won't ever be another race that I won't be excited to do ever again."

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