U.S. speedskater Baver wears a bronze after career of mixed moments

Reading's Allison Baver will leave Vancouver with a surprise bronze medal.

VANCOUVER - In her finest hour, Allison Baver remembered how her little sister peed in the car.

Funny what you remember at the top of the mountain.

Baver and her relay teammates exited the ice Wednesday as bronze-medal winners, Baver delighted with a medal of any kind.

She saw her family first, and with family comes memories; memories of sacrifice and sadness, and pain, and, sometimes, pee.

Her path to the podium began in Reading and went through places like Nebraska and the infamous potty tale.

The Bavers were headed to the Midwest for a meet where Baver would win her first short-track title, a national championship. Mom drove the minivan, Aunt Cindy by her side, for almost 1,300 miles. In the back, the three Baver kids watched a makeshift mini TV/VCR combo plugged into the lighter and crammed into a cooler: Allison, 11; her brother Brad, 7; and, of course, Crystal. She was 8, and she had to go, but Dixie Baver couldn't get to the side of the road in time, and Crystal couldn't hold it.

Accidents happen.

"My mom was like, 'Everybody out! Everybody out!' " Baver told the Daily News yesterday.

It was a happy memory, on a happy, happy day.

On Wednesday, Baver, 29, endured a terrible day, in a terrible year after a terrible injury . . . all of which was salvaged, incredibly, impossibly.

A year ago, Baver shattered her lower right leg in a World Cup race in Bulgaria. She collided with Katherine Reutter, a teammate on Team USA, better known as The Leg that Stephen Colbert Signed.

It put into question a third Olympics; she was held out of all but the relay in 2002 and was slowed by injury during the 2006 Games. Baver had no question about making it to Vancouver.

Baver pushed through an agonizing rehab schedule and qualified for the Olympics in September in the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter races, along with the relay; her ankle couldn't support the rigors of the 500.

She didn't advance past the semifinals of the 1,500 on Sunday. Then, Wednesday morning, she was disqualified in a preliminary heat in the 1,000.

"I didn't feel like I made that mistake," Baver said.

Wednesday night, she and her 3,000-meter relay team, its order shuffled at the last minute, finished fourth. At first.

The Korean team was disqualified. A short-track DQ that cost Baver her dream in the 1,000 made Baver a medalist at night.

"For me to walk away with a medal is just a miracle," she said.

For her to even walk up the podium last night wasn't far from miraculous.

Before her fateful heat in the 1,500 she read her journal, the diary she kept as she convalesced at the family home.

I can't sleep. I can't walk I can't stand up. My leg just gets so black and blue and swollen every time I try to stand. It just aches. It's in so much pain. Constantly . . . My leg is like a twig.

She had to relearn how to stand, first in a pool, then on the floor. Then, she had to learn how to walk. Then she went up stairs, then down - almost impossible when your muscles are jelly and your ankle joint is so clogged with scar tissue it won't bend a bit.

Aunt Cindy - Cindy Ziegler, Dixie's sister - stayed with Allison during the day, her workout partner for the Jane Fonda videos, her cook and waitress when it was time to eat.

Quickly, she became a rehab junkie, 8 hours of weights and stretching and exercise not enough for all the work she wanted to do. She still needs help before races, needs a trainer to loosen the ankle so it can nearly scrape the ice as she wheels around turns.

By Wednesday morning, the twig was an oak tree. By Wednesday afternoon, it was as numb as the rest of her. By Wednesday night, her legs felt like wings.

"You forget. You forget the pain," Baver said.

And you remember, too.

You remember you and Brad and Crystal spending holidays on the road at races.

You would say, "Is he really coming? Is he really coming? How does he know where we are?"

And Dixie would say, "Oh, the Easter Bunny definitely comes to hotels."

You remember that trip to Nebraska, and Crystal, of course, but also how you and your relay team shocked everyone.

"We weren't expected to win. And we went out and, like kicked everyone's butt," Baver said. "To this day, it's one of my best medals."

On Wednesday, it got pushed back one more slot.

You remember the times you set your alarm clock at 5 a.m. to run for an hour in the snow on a reconstructed leg that aches even today.

"I woke up this morning and I said, 'I don't have training this morning. What do I do?' " Baver said. "I almost started to cry."

You think about binging, how you ate the same breakfast for the past 4 years: one egg, half a grapefruit, a half cup of oatmeal; the same dinner for 2 weeks: seared ahi tuna salad.

"Sometimes," she whispered, "I'd have a cookie."

She doesn't have to whisper any more, because, thanks to Wednesday's DQ, she won't race in the final today. Yesterday, she had honey on her oatmeal.

You think about who you owe. How Penske, the truck company, stuck by you through rehab and sent a marketing rep to Vancouver for Wednesday's races.

"Had I broken my leg and had to worry about how I was going to make my mortgage payment and my car payment and come back from this injury?" Her voice cracked. "Seriously? No way."

You appreciate how Proctor & Gamble gave your mom (and the other moms) $3,000 to travel to the Olympics, then gave your family a sweet spot to watch the games, the P&G House, where Brad's baby gets Olympic Pampers and everybody snacks in the Pringles room. How you love their Pantene line and their Cover Girl mascara, and you wear it, flaunt it, because "It's part of who I am. It makes me feel confident. Really girly."

And, yes, you appreciate Colbert, but you wanted that leg he signed to be yours: "Yeah. Maybe. The leg? Maybe. I do have a nicer leg, though."

She has a plan, too.

She will launch a foundation, Off the Ice, aimed at giving American kids a shot at speedskating the way First Tee helps kids learn golf. She'll publish a series of children's books about a character called Bubbles the Dragon, a not-so-ferocious reptile whose challenges include overcoming a broken tail, learning to fly and, of course, turning those bubbles to flames.

She will attend tonight's races, because she's got an ex (Apolo Anton Ohno) and teammates skating. She's 29, but she will skate again, too. Maybe until the next Olympics. Maybe long track; maybe not.

"I'm a racer. I don't know if I could do that - race the clock," she said. "I have to race people."

But she will race.

"You analyze these things, and you realize, you just love to skate," Baver said. "Is it really about winning medals? Or is it about the journey?"

Sometimes, on the way to Nebraska, it's about both.

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