Ice Network

Wylie: I survived 'by the narrowest of margins'

Olympic silver medalist gives uplifting speech months after cardiac arrest
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Paul Wylie reflected on his improbable run to the 1992 Olympic silver medal during his keynote speech at Champs Camp. -courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

The best part of Paul Wylie's keynote speech at U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp was that he was able to deliver it at all.

In April, Wylie was running sprints with some friends when he collapsed. Fortunately for Wylie, one of the guys he was running with was trained in CPR and performed chest compressions for about five minutes before an ambulance arrived. Paramedics tried using a defibrilator to resuscitate Wylie but were unsuccessful. It was only when he received an injection that rescue workers were able to revive Wylie. He was then put into a medically induced coma, from which he didn't wake up for a couple of days.

"By the narrowest of margins," Wylie said, "I survived."

He awoke on April 23 with his wife, Kate, holding his hand. Wylie had no idea where he was (he was in a hospital not far from his Charlotte home), and his wife had to fill him in on what had happened.

"She said, 'Your heart stopped,' and the ambulance came and brought you here," Wylie said. "I said, 'An ambulance? That's expensive!'"

Wylie, an Olympic silver medalist and just 50 years old, appeared to be in seemingly good health. His arteries were not clogged. The only health troubles he had leading up to his cardiac arrest were some dizzy spells.

He underwent surgery to have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator placed in his chest. Wyle has a device that monitors the implant and will notify his doctors in case of any mechanical issues. (Wylie and his wife joke that it is his "bat phone.")

Since the episode, Wylie has taken some things slowly. He's still following doctor's orders and can't drive until Oct. 21 -- and, yes, he's been counting down the days until he can get behind the wheel. But little by little, he has made a recovery. He has resumed coaching again at the Extreme Ice Center. The day after he made his speech, he was biking around Colorado Springs. He also went water skiing in Lake Placid.

Wylie continues to see his cardiologists for follow-up appointments. So far, so good. 

It hasn't been easy, and he still has some trouble with his breathing, but he knows he is fortunate to be where he is today.

"Sudden cardiac arrest is a silent killer," Wylie said. "Anything I can do to help raise awareness for that is something I'd be interested in doing."

Surviving by the narrowest of margins has been a big part of Wylie's life, as he noted to the skaters in the speech. Those slight margins, however, also led him to his greatest successes.

What resonated greatly with the skaters was Wylie's story of overcoming the odds to make Olympic history. In the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, Wylie said he had low confidence in his skating. He was 27, and in three trips to the world championships, he had never placed higher than ninth. In 1991, he had such a disastrous showing in the short program that he almost missed qualifying for the free skate. 

"Somehow, by some miracle, I made it by one-tenth of a point," Wylie said. "I was in 20th place and the top 20 skaters qualified."

He redeemed himself in the free skate when he "pulled out one of the best performances of my life" and pulled up to 11th overall.

Still, he was not given much of a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team, let alone be included in the medal-contender discussion. Back then, Canada's Kurt Browning and the Unified Team's Viktor Petrenko were considered the favorites, while Christopher Bowman and Todd Eldredge were thought to be the United States' top hopes.

"People said, 'You're done. You're finished,'" Wylie said. "Judges called my parents and said I was done."

But he wasn't.

The guy everyone seemed to give up on pulled up from a fourth-place finish in the short program and wound up winning the silver medal.

On Saturday night, he showed his Olympic performances to the skaters during his speech. Even though he still cringes at some of the flaws he showed, he's proud that he was able to prove his talent.

"The message to the skaters today was this: 'You guys have nothing to lose. You never have anything to lose, really,'" he said.

Wylie challenged Team USA's top skaters to count down the days until the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, to examine their training and push themselves through repetition and run-throughs. He also encouraged them to change up their routines every now and then, too.

"Life is not always going to go to a plan," Wylie said. "You need to train yourself for the surprise. You're going to land in Hungary some day and your skates aren't going to arrive on time and you're going to have to pull out your program from your you-know-where."

Skaters left the speech awed.

"It was incredible to hear him talk and hear his story," U.S. champion Jason Brown said. "You could just hear the passion in his voice. I don't think a single athlete there wasn't motivated. He is truly, truly a champion in all forms of the word."

Wylie apologized for ending his speech on a down note by talking about his health. But then he smiled and said, "But I'm here!"

And that was worth the price of the admission.