Four years ago, Jed Schneider found himself restricted to a hospital bed, listening to his surgeon explain how Schneider's shattered right kneecap almost ended up in the medical waste dump.
On Saturday, Schneider -- a 23-year-old Kansas University graduate student in geography -- coasted across the finish line as the second-place finisher in the cross country portion of the Collegiate Mountain Bike Championships in Helen, Ga.
"I was going to turn pro a couple of weeks after the accident happened," said Schneider, a Sandia Park, N.M., native. "It was in the works. I would have been the youngest professional in America. It looked like I could get a factory ride. Then I had my accident.
"She turned left in front of me. When I hit her I was going about 33 mph. My orthopedic surgeon ended up being one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the Southwest. I told him it was my living and that I was going to turn pro. He said if I hadn't been a professional athlete -- or a top-ranked amateur -- he would have thrown my kneecap away."
He didn't. Instead, he inserted four pins, two of which remain.
Schneider spent a week in that Albuquerque hospital and, by his own estimation, spent about two years in rehabilitation before he felt strong enough to race again.
All of which should have made his strong showing at the collegiate nationals something of a surprise to Schneider.
"I really went in with the intention of winning," said Schneider, vice president of the KU cycling club who was the top KU finisher among the eight Jayhawks who participated. "I went into it knowing my fitness. I really thought I would be in the top five if I didn't break a chain or something, but I also knew I was the underdog."
He was the underdog to race winner Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, of the University of Colorado, who covered four circuits of the 7.5-mile course -- 30 miles in all -- in 2 hours, 21 minutes, 39 seconds. Schneider coasted across 1 minute, 8 seconds later.
It could have been closer.
"It all came down to the final climb," Schneider said. "I knew I was close to cracking, but I was hoping I had enough in me. Within 15 meters of the top of the climb, Jeremy punched it. I went to follow and I cramped up. It was all downhill to the finish line, so if I would have made it to the top of the hill, it would have been all downhill. As it was, I crested the hill in a lot of pain and coasted down. It didn't matter if it was two seconds or a minute. I lost."
Schneider has won plenty over the years. Now a second-year pro, Schneider made the U.S. National Mountain Bike under-23 team and raced in the 1998 World Championships in Quebec, where he finished 64th. He placed 15th in the criterium at last year's National Collegiate Cycling Assn. road cycling championships, and 11th and the '97 collegiate mountain bike championship.
He also was among the nation's top-ranked juniors -- cyclists aged 15-18 -- before the accident that just about ended his career before it began. Schneider left the sport briefly and enrolled at Montana State.
"It's funny," Schneider said. "I broke my collarbone earlier, and that's why I decided to go to college. Then I shattered my kneecap, and that's why I stayed in school. I realized I needed an education. It was an eye-opener."
And what potentially life-threatening injury did he sustain to decide to leave Montana State for KU?
"Grad school was on my own," Schneider said with a laugh. "I didn't have to get hurt for grad school."
The move from the relative mountain-biking hotbeds of New Mexico and Montana to Kansas turned out to be financially rewarding.
"Actually, I make more money than I would if I raced there," Schneider said. "Montana doesn't pay. And in New Mexico there aren't a lot of races. In a lot of ways, it's ideal for training here, and I can make more money from the regional races here."
Schneider estimated that he rode about 10,000 miles a year, 95 percent of which is road training. He climbs on his mountain bike only for races.
"I grew up on mountain bikes, and I rode mountain bikes all the time as a junior," he said. "When I turned senior, I had all the skills. I could focus on my physical fitness. It's almost better than having the fitness and having to learn the skills as a senior. I'm actually one of the faster descenders. I can handle a bike as well as anybody.
"And the other thing is, you can't get enough miles mountain biking. It's too intense. You have to ride five, six hours, and you get too beat up on a mountain bike."
By placing second Saturday, Schneider was named an All-American. Whatever that means.
"People tell me that means I can get a letter jacket," Schneider said. "I don't know. That's what I've been told. But it's a nice status. Only 20 people get that."
Not that Schneider has any trouble with name recognition.
"Jeremy and Ryah Radomski (fourth place) and I are recognized as young pros who are up and coming," Schneider said. "We're actually pretty well-known."
Schneider hopes to compete in the World Championships next year in Vail, Colo., and he'd like to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
"Those are my long-term goals," he said. "We maintained a good pace, good enough for top 10 in the world. So, the gap's not that big. In time, I could be in the top five. The top two Americans make the team. Ryah was 10th in the world last year, so that gives you an idea of the level of competition (at the collegiate race). You can make a lot of improvement in four years."
The other KU participants in the collegiate championships were: Bryce Lawrence, Jen Tilley, Todd Otanicar, Toby Lunn, Scott Warren and Scott and Dan Wadley. Lawrence placed 71st in cross country out of 145 starters, and Tilley was 51st in the women's race.
-- Andrew Hartsock's phone number is 832-7216. His e-mail address is email@example.com.