Some athletes return from injuries. Travis West came back from a coma.
It was 1987, just before Thanksgiving. A rare disease attacked West's red blood cells. He was so sick that doctors told his mother they "wouldn't give a plugged nickel for his life." He was riddled by seizures. His kidneys shut down. His lungs filled with fluid. There was even talk that he was brain dead.
"The doctor told my mother, 'Your son's heart is beating, but we don't know why,' " West said. "He said, 'If he wakes up, he'll be a vegetable.' "
Five years later, and West is 25 and an Olympian, a Greco Roman wrestler from Portland, Ore., who uses his 163 pounds and his fierce will to pin opponents to a mat.
"I'm here by the grace of God," he said.
For West, these are no idle words, but a clear expression of faith. His life has been touched by tragedy. An older brother, Lorenzo, a wrestler at the University of Oregon, was killed in a van accident. West's college roommate and teammate, Bobby Janisse, died of a gunshot wound.
Wrestling provides West with an anchor and a purpose. The youngest in a family 13, West had seven brothers, all wrestlers. He can remember performing take-downs in the family living room and pins in the basement. He attended Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, where he won three Oregon state titles. Then he went to Portland State, where he chased after NCAA Division II championships.
But West nearly died in November, 1987. For weeks, he felt rundown, but doctors couldn't locate the cause of his illness. Then, on Nov. 17, he returned to his room, feeling feverish. He decided to drive home, but before he could reach the door a wave of nausea swept over his body.
"It was like someone was hitting my head with a sledgehammer," he said. "My hands were numb and cold, like I stuck my hands in a bucket of ice. Yet I was hot. It was noon and I got under the covers. The next thing I knew, it was 6 p.m. and my mother took me to the hospital."
Once admitted, a nurse came into his room to take a blood sample. A few seconds later, West collapsed.
"I don't remember much," he said. "I was trying to catch myself, and I knocked a couple of tables over."
He went into a coma. Then seizures racked his body. Doctors told his mother, Versie, that if the seizures continued, he would die.
"They told my mom to call the family together," he said.
West was in the coma for five
days, awakening briefly one afternoon when his sister Hazel and mother arrived for a visit.
"I opened my eyes and said, 'Hazel is here.' As soon as I did that, Hazel came in, walked right through the door," he said. "I kind of lifted my hand and said, 'Hi, Hazel,' and went back into the coma. That was the turning point. It was the first thing I remembered."
West began improving, even though his doctors were still perplexed by the disease that nearly took his life. To this day, West said he does not know what illness attacked him.
"I said this is just the working of God. He's trying to get my attention," he said. "I had a purpose on earth that I wasn't following. God got my attention. I told the doctor, 'You're not going to find out what caused this.' He said, 'Ten to one I'll find out.' But he didn't. There was no medical reason for what happened."
Doctors told him he would never wrestle again. When he was discharged from the hospital on Dec. 11, he was no longer a strapping, 20-year-old athlete. He was withered and frail. He had lost 15 pounds. He had to re-learn to walk.
Yet within a month, he was back working out in a gym. It took him two years before he regained his full strength and full fury for wrestling. He won a 1989 NCAA Division II title, and was a national runner-up in 1990. Then he began climbing the national ladder in Greco Roman. He was second in the 1991 U.S. Nationals and second at the 1991 Olympic Festival. He went to Cuba for the 1991 Pan American Games and had a dismal tournament. Tired from cutting weight to get down to 149.5 pounds, he decided to move up a weight class for 1992.
The gamble succeeded. West earned his Olympic spot in 1992.
"Since I was in high school I always wanted to be on the Olympic team," he said. "I've always wanted to be a trend setter. We've never had a Greco Roman gold medalist. I want to be the one who sets records. That's why I'm training every day, twice a day. It's a long, hard road and I believe I can get there."
He'll be an underdog at the Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. But he said he doesn't mind.
When he competes, he said, he'll think of his brother, Lorenzo, and his first college roommate, Bobby, athletes who died young.
"Everything I do now is not just for me, but for my brother," West said. "I have to break the records he was setting. And there is a part of me that wrestles for Bobby. I can't forget them."
Others died, and he reclaimed life. That's the greatest comeback of all.