By TIM PUET, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Speed skater Adam Riedy says the U.S. Olympic team has rallied around him as he battles the effects of multiple sclerosis. Now he's getting a chance to return the favor.
Riedy didn't make the six-member men's short-track team, but was selected to go to Salt Lake City to help the team train for the Winter Games in February. He is to leave on Friday.
"I'll be someone who acts sort of like a coach and a teammate at the same time, pushing the other guys to reach their peak when it's time for the Games," he said in a telephone interview from his home in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood.
"It's great that I get to go, because when the Games are on, I don't think I wanted to be home having to deal with friends and family at that point."
A message was left for Nick Paulenich, spokesman for U.S. Speedskating, the Westlake, Ohio-based governing body for the Olympic sport.
Riedy said skating officials chose him in recognition of his past performance -- and because he asked.
"I've lived with these guys for 10 months of the year and they've been my support group," Riedy said. "Now I'll get to be their support, and I want to do whatever might help them, even as simple as getting someone an extra pair of laces when asked."
Riedy, 20, was considered a strong candidate to make the team when 2001 began.
In the 2000 World Cup, he won a bronze medal in the 1000-meters and was on two relay teams that medaled. In U.S. Junior short track competition, he was third overall in 2000 and second overall in 1999.
Then one morning in mid-January, "I found that the right side of my leg had gotten all tingly and numb. As the day went on, the pain moved all the way up my right side, then back down again," he said.
He wasn't too concerned. "I had all my strength and I still could do everything I needed to," Riedy said.
But the pain persisted, so he began reading about what the problem could be and underwent testing, including a CAT scan, magnetic resonance imaging and a spinal tap.
The testing led to a diagnosis that Riedy's condition might be multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that can affect vision, muscle control and thought.
In April, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic, confirmed the diagnosis.
"He told me I'd be taking a chance if I continued skating, but I felt it was a chance worth taking," Riedy said. "After all, these are the Olympics we're talking about."
With the international Olympic committee's approval, Riedy began taking daily injections of Copaxone, a medication that helps fool the body into attacking the drug instead of the body's nerve cells.
Riedy lost his health insurance benefits soon after the disease was diagnosed, but the makers of Copaxone have agreed to give him a year's supply of the drug -- almost $12,000 worth -- for free.
"We're fortunate they'll pick him up for a year. We don't know what's going to happen after that, but we'll just go on hoping things will be all right," said Riedy's mother, Karen. "We're blessed that he's so determined. The way he's handled this has helped the rest of us make it through.
"Like my dad used to say, sometimes when it seems you're at the end of your rope, you have to grab the end of it, tie a knot and keep going, and that's what's happened with Adam."
When he suffers severe attacks, Riedy also occasionally takes a steroid known as Solumedral, also with the Olympic committee's approval.
Such an attack took place just before the Olympic trials in Utah in December, after Riedy's strength had returned to a point at which he felt he might make the team.
The attack weakened his right leg so that he had little control over it.
"I went out and skated because there's always hope that a miracle might occur and you might get your feeling back, but my times were the worst since I was 10 or 11 years old," he said. Riedy finished 21st.
"I felt the last 10 years and the extra training I went through the last year or two was a waste," he said. "But all the time this has been happening, I've come to realize there are things that happen you can't do anything about, so you put the experience behind you and go on."
After the Olympics are over, Riedy plans to take a year off, return home and attend classes at Cleveland State University. The progress of his condition will determine what happens next.
"If I can get a handle on my MS, I'll definitely go for the 2006 Games in Italy, but I'll do it only if there's a good chance I'll succeed," he said. "I don't want to go another four years and be let down at the end."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)