Brazil Winter Olympic Hopeful Damages Spinal Cord in Tree Crash

Lais da Silva Souza, a Brazilian Olympic gymnast trying to qualify for next month’s Winter Games in Russia, underwent spinal surgery following a training accident in the U.S.

Souza, 25, and her 29-year-old training partner Joselane Rodrigues dos Santos only took up the sport in July, and were trying to become their country’s first Olympic acrobatic skiers. Souza crashed into a tree two days ago while skiing in Salt Lake City, said Felippe Rodrigues, a spokesman for Brazil’s winter sports federation, CBDN. Souza would have found out today if she’d made it to the Sochi Games, which start Feb. 7.

“It doesn’t look really good,” Rodrigues said in a telephone interview from the CBDN’s offices in Sao Paulo. “She had a really bad situation on her vertebrae. We are still waiting for her response from surgery.”

Souza had minimal sensation from her neck down, and was only able to communicate using her eyes and by moving her head because of tubes inserted into her mouth by doctors at the University of Utah Hospital. She underwent surgery 24 hours ago.

Michael Schumacher, the record seven-time Formula One champion, remains in a coma after suffering brain injuries when he crashed into a rock while skiing in France on Dec. 29.

Souza, who competed at the summer Olympics in Athens and Beijing, and Santos were picked following a trial in May, where Canadian coach Ryan Snow tested hopefuls using a trampoline. Neither had any experience of skiing before being picked, and Souza had only seen snow once before while traveling to Ukraine for a gymnastic competition.


Acrobatic skiing, known as aerials, was added to the Winter Games in 1994. Skiers receive marks for their display, as in gymnastics.

In an interview in November, Souza said she prayed before each run to overcome any fear.

“I say ‘Please God help me,’’ she said.

Rodrigues said he was expecting official confirmation today that Brazil had secured the final place for the aerial competition at Sochi following an injury to an athlete from Belarus. That place would have gone to Souza, and now will be made available to Santos.

Santos and Souza have known each other since competing in gymnastics as children, and the pair have roomed together throughout the quest to reach the Olympics. Santos has been by Souza’s bedside since the accident.

‘‘She’s devastated,” Rodrigues said. “I couldn’t even imagine what’s going on in her head. I think she doesn’t know about the spot. We’d love her to go but it will be her decision.”

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