Cliff Meidl was a 20-year-old construction worker in Los Angeles when his jackhammer struck a power line and sent 30,000 volts of electricity surging through his body. The massive jolt was almost fatal. He immediately went into cardiac arrest. Firefighters administered CPR and had to cut off his burned jeans due to the severity of the damage to his knees.

“I can tell you I wouldn’t be here without CPR,” Meidl, 48, said Tuesday at a meeting of the American Heart Association’s Emergency Cardiovascular Care program in Dallas.

In the aftermath of the accident, Meidl suffered extensive burns on his legs and back. Initially, the damage left him unable to walk, yet he persevered.

And as he slowly worked through physical therapy to regain his mobility, a larger recovery process began that would change his life and that of many others.

“I was angry. I was depressed. It was the most painful part of my life,” he said. “But I learned that by taking these micro steps, you can get through any adversity.”

A month after the accident, he was standing up on parallel bars at rehab. As his recovery continued, Meidl said he was eventually able to walk. But doctors told him he would never be able to run again.

Left with a yearning to stay active from his home in Los Angeles, he eventually turned to kayaking at the suggestion of his younger brother, Norman. Kayaking gave Meidl a newfound purpose in life.

“It was something that required my upper body but not my legs,” Meidl said. “And I kept taking small steps and improving it from there.”

Sixteen world kayaking championships later, he competed at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He gained widespread international attention at the 2000 Games in Sydney, when his American peers selected him as the U.S. flag bearer during the Opening Ceremonies.

Today, Meidl travels the country offering words of inspiration to burn victims, raising awareness about the importance of job-site safety, and offering support for life-saving training like CPR.

The American Heart Association’s Hands-Only CPR provides a simple way for anyone to provide life-saving treatment.

“My accident was a great equalizer,” he said.”It made me realize that life is all about small steps that add up to 100 percent.”

Photos courtesy