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One more shot

Whether he makes the U.S. Olympic speed skating team or not, it’s something of a miracle that Liam Ortega, Arts ’07, is back out on the ice at all.

Ortega, a native of Alaska who came to Marquette in large part because he’d have an opportunity to train with other Olympic hopefuls at the nearby Pettit National Ice Center, sustained a traumatic brain injury during an accident in 2008.

He was skating slowly in a warm-up lane when another skater wiped out at 40 miles an hour and collided violently with Ortega, fracturing his skull and causing hemorrhages in the back of his brain.

“It knocked me unconscious,” he says. “I spent a day in a drug-induced coma on life support and then a week in the ICU.”

The accident left Ortega with a long road to recovery and lingering effects that included loss of his sense of smell. It also cost him a shot at making the 2010 Olympics. Though he recovered in time to compete in the Olympic trials leading up to the Vancouver Games, he was well off pace and didn’t qualify. Ortega briefly considered quitting, but a heart-to-heart talk with two-time gold medalist Shani Davis helped him regain his motivation.

“He’s a great person, great friend and supporter,” Ortega says. “That chat really helped me at times to have perspective, like: ‘OK, you’re not dead. You’ve progressed to this point, but, in reality, you expected too much.’”

After spending some time thinking about his future, he decided to give it one more shot. This fall, he was back training in the Milwaukee area with hopes of qualifying for the 2014 Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, in February. The trials to determine who makes the U.S. team were held just as Marquette Magazine was going to press.

Like many U.S. athletes, Ortega is constantly on the hunt for corporate sponsors to support his training. He even auctioned off advertising space on small patches he wears on his cheeks while racing. The Olympics might be glamorous, but the path to get there isn’t. “Think minimum wage  and then skaters are way below that,” he says.

No matter what happens in 2014, Ortega is thankful to have a Marquette degree. He thanks his mom for pushing him to go to college instead of allowing him to quit school to concentrate on full-time training.

Having gone through a serious injury, Ortega would like to help others as a physical therapist. He plans to apply to PT programs in the future and already has begun job shadowing at a Milwaukee-area clinic.

“If I hit my ultimate goal, it would be a dream come true,” Ortega says of making the Olympic team. “But then, after that, it’s over. I want to do something that’s worthwhile every day.” CJ


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