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Canadian teen Wilkie dedicated herself to skiing after shop class accident

PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — Karin Huster had just arrived home from work and walked in the front door when the phone rang. It was her daughter's school principal. He said her daughter Natalie Wilkie had her hand stuck in the jointer machine in wood shop class.

"I didn't really know what that meant. Is it just a matter of undoing it, or was there an actual injury involved?" Huster said.

Over the next harrowing hour, an ambulance, fire truck, search and rescue, and a medevac helicopter arrived on the scene, while Huster remained on the phone, instructed not to bolt for the school because her daughter would likely be gone before she got there.

As things progressed, paramedics told Huster the situation looked bleak. Her daughter's fingers probably couldn't be saved.

"I told the paramedic 'Tell her I'm thinking of her, I'm right here,'" Huster said. "That was one of the worst parts was not being there. My kid was in an accident and I couldn't be there. You just want to be there, and take care of them. That was hard."

A year and a half later, the 17-year-old Wilkie is the youngest member of Canada's Paralympic team in Pyeongchang, and when she raced to bronze on Wednesday in cross-country's 1.5-kilometre sprint classic, Huster barely left her side. A Canadian flag tucked under one arm, and a smile that never left her face, she walked with Wilkie through the media interview area. They posed for pictures arm-in-arm.

"Natalie to me is a very resilient young woman," Huster said. "She's got some inner strength."

Anna Milenina, a neutral athlete from Russia, won gold in five minutes 11.1 seconds. Norway's Vilde Nilsen crossed 3.1 seconds back, and Wilkie had a huge kick down the home stretch to miss silver by just a tenth of a second.  

"It's cool to think of how far I've come from my accident," Wilkie said.

It was in the final few days of the school year, and Wilkie had finished all her projects, but figured she'd make a sign for fun. Jointers plane the side of wood, and as Wilkie was pushing the wood through, it kicked back and because her weight was going forward, her hand went into the machine.

She stuck a foot out and kicked the emergency stop button, and then sat in a chair for the next hour while paramedics searched the jointer's instruction manual trying to figure out how to disassemble the machine.

She was eventually flown to Kelowna to repair the wound. Her four fingers couldn't be saved.

"I had already known my fingers were gone, ever since they took my hand out of the machine. I was told not to look, but I did," Wilkie said, her left hand stuffed in a Canada tuque. "I remember thinking that I didn't have my fingers anymore. That was a really horrible experience. I don't think anybody should have to go through that."

Wilkie was back at school a week later.

"It was a lot for her to process, she needed constant support. It was quite difficult for her to leave the hospital and come out into the real world with the injury, it was such a harsh reminder of what had happened, how things had changed," Huster said. "The first day home we just did a little walk outside. 

"But once she was home, it was like she just got a grip on things and said 'OK, now what?'"

Already a promising cross-country skier, she attended her's club's out-of-town training camp just two weeks after the accident.

"The training was something she'd done before the accident, and so it just gave her a sense of normalcy and something to do," Huster said. "The training camp she went to, the coaches were very supportive. I remember sending bandage changes and her medicines along, the coaches looked after her wound."

Wilkie also competes in able-bodied races. Her coaches helped her develop an extra wrap to help her better grip her ski pole. She'd like to be like Paralympic star Brian McKeever, who races both Paralympic and able-bodied. 

Her able-bodied racing improved after her accident. She won bronze at her last national championships. 

"That was kind of a surprise," Wilkie said. "I don't know why. Maybe because I was more determined. My accident made me feel like I had nothing to lose anymore. And I just worked my way up from there. You realize how much you depend on things (when you almost lose them)."

Huster praised the Paralympic community for welcoming them from the "very get-go."

"Because everybody has similar stories to tell," she said. "Even if it was a birth defect, everybody has similar adjustments to go through. And all of the parents have worked very hard to support their children in reaching beyond what maybe they initially thought they maybe could do."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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