As the Olympics begin this weekend, local filmmaker Morgan Schenk will be watching closely. In a manner of speaking, a gold medalist saved his life.
Schenk edited the footage for a new documentary about a swimmer whose gold medal was wrongfully taken away in the 1972 Munich Games.
Schenk worked on the film while recovering from a near-fatal knife attack.
One man’s Olympic gold because another man’s triumph over tragedy.
Morgan Schenk has spent much of his young adult life learning how to make movies.
Schenk attended Park City High School and took courses in advanced broadcasting and television before he graduated in 2002.
He interned at Park City Television where he operated the camera, mixed sound and designed graphics for the local daily news show Good Morning Park City.
He even landed an a gig as the assistant director for In the Can, an hour long daily broadcast for the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
Then Schenk took his dreams on the road. He moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to attend the Los Angeles Film School. The first two quarters of the yearlong program were spent in earnest preparation for a career in film. He studied editing and sound design and earned credits in a handful of short films.
He planned to spend his final quarter on a thesis project. Then, as he says, tragedy struck.
On April 16, 2005, Schenk was eating at a restaurant in Los Angeles when a stranger walked up to him and stabbed him on the right side of the neck. There had been no confrontation, no heated words or foreboding glances.
And yet there it was: A four and a half in blade lodged into Schenk’s neck. It had been apropos of nothing, a weird turn in a bad script.
Schenk spun around in time to see his assailant walking away. "It just felt like he hit me really hard," Schenk remembered.
He fell from his chair and by the time he hit the ground, he says, stunned onlookers were already on the phone, calling an ambulance.
Paramedics arrived moments later and rushed him to an emergency room, but things weren’t looking good. The blade couldn’t be removed for fear of damaging more nerves.
An x-ray revealed that the blade had penetrated bone and severed nerves in the C5 or C6 vertebrae, Schenk can’t remember which, and an artery.
To say Schenk was inches from death would have been a gross understatement. The blade was just one millimeter from his spinal column. "I either would have been dead or a quadriplegic," he said.
Police apprehended Schenk’s attacker, a vagrant with a history of mental illness, three days later. A camera from across the street had captured the stabbing. The man has spent the last three years in California prisons and mental institutions, Schenk says.
Schenk’s battle was just beginning. Instead of making movies, he was living a nightmare. His right arm was paralyzed except for some movement in his right hand and the doctors said he likely would never use it again.
He says he doesn’t remember much from the first three weeks after the attack spent in a Los Angeles hospital. "The first time I realized what happened was when I was walking again," he said.
After three weeks, Schenk’s parents, Paul and Jan Schenk, were able to drive their son home to Park City, where Schenk started doing physical therapy at Silver Mountain Sports Club and Spa.
He underwent a major nerve reconstructive surgery in July 2005, three months after the attack. The procedure borrowed nerve pathways from elsewhere in his body to try to regain sensation and function in his arm.
The surgery had remarkable success and within a year Schenk’s arm was functioning almost normally. Three years ago, Schenk says he struggled to put on a pair of pants. Today, he has regained 90 percent range of motion. Except for a weakened bicep muscle and a few scars, the injury that could have ended Schenk’s life has left few signs of having ever happened.
Returning to work
"I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after that," Schenk said. Then in early 2007 a friend from film school, Doug Follmer, asked Schenk if he wanted to edit footage from an ongoing documentary project about a former Olympic gold medalist whose medal was wrongfully rebuked because he tested positive for a banned substance in his asthma medication
The International Olympic Committee stripped Rick DeMont of his gold medal from the 400-meter freestyle at the 1972 Munich Games after he failed a drug test because his the medication that allowed him to breathe, Marax, contained ephedrine.
Intrigued by the story, Schenk decided to take on the challenge of editing the footage. Follmer, who directed the film, mailed Schenk a hard drive with 10 interviews that spanned 12 hours. Schenk’s task was to help condense the footage into a coherent hour-long narrative. He edited eight hours a day for six months.
Still living with his parents, attending physical therapy and recovering from nerve damage, Schenk would post edited clips on YouTube to share them with Follmer, who lived in Los Angeles. "It was daunting at the time," Schenk said. "But it kind of got me back into making movies."
The film, called "Negative Split" was made for $40,000 and features footage from television networks. It premiered July 16 at the New York Video and Film Festival in Los Angeles. Schenk’s mom, sister and some classmates from Park City High attended the screening. "It was fun to watch it on the big screen," Schenk said. "We noticed all the mistakes we made. But I don’t think anyone else did."
Schenk said he and others who worked on the film hope to take it to the New York Film Festival next spring.
Schenk now works as a freelance editor and films and Web sites. He is also the principal editor and videographer for Premiere Wedding Productions, an L.A.-based company specializing in private and corporate events.
He says he and Follmer are looking for their next feature-length project and it may turn out to be Schenk’s own story.
He has been working on a script.
"Negative Split" wrap
Courtesy of Morgan Schenk
Young Rick DeMont explores swimming as a relief for his asthma in the sleepy town of San Rafael, California in the late 1960’s. Rick excels in long distance swimming and soon is competing at unexpected levels. Despite his battle with asthma and his developing allergies, with the help of medication, he is able to train and persevere.
Early on, Rick catches the eye of a local swim coach, Don Swartz, who sees unlimited potential in Rick’s tenacity, not just his strength. Together they train and create an original program that takes advantage of Rick’s ability to come from behind in a race.
They take this method, which Don Swartz observes on the track field, and adopt it as Rick’s new competitive method. They call it the Negative Split. Thanks in part to this method and thanks to Rick’s ability to read his opponents in the other lanes, Rick quickly excels in local and national swim meets.
In 1972, Rick goes to Chicago for the Olympic trials. Not only does Rick make the team, but he shatters the world record in the 1500 meter freestyle. The swimming world begins to take notice of this quiet kid from Northern California.
Rick arrives at the ’72 Olympic games in Munich, Germany, full of hope and determination.
Rick wakes up earlier than any of the other team members to prepare for his races. Despite his efforts to pace himself, Rick trains too hard the day before the 400-meter race and that night suffers a debilitating asthma attack. Thanks to his medication, the attack subsides and he is able to rest before the race. The next morning Rick gets into the pool with Australian Brad Cooper and American Steve Genter, and no one is certain, even Rick, of who will take the 400 meter race. Rick swims a Negative Split, coming from behind, and takes the gold. He beats Brad Cooper by a stunning 1/100th of a second.
The next day, Rick is quietly but persistently pursued by the International Olympic Committee, who are concerned with the urine test results that Rick produced after winning the 400 meter.
Rick’s failed drug test is due to his asthma medication, Marax, which contains ephedrine. Although Rick has provided a list of his medications, the Olympic Village doctors failed to warn him that his medication might disqualify him. Rick is allowed to warm up before the 1500, but is suddenly pulled from pool and told that he would not be permitted to race.
His gold medal is renounced and he is stripped of his title. His coaches argue that his medication only helps him to overcome his disabilities to achieve normalcy, but their arguments fall on deaf ears. Rick returns home to California, devastated.
Rick struggles with whether or not to return to the pool. It takes help, support and time to heal his wounds before Rick would reenter the water to train for the upcoming 1973 World Championships. Rick returns stronger and wiser than before and swims an incredible race. Rick beats Brad Cooper again, and sets the world record title in the 400-meter freestyle, becoming the first swimmer to break the 4-minute barrier.
Rick used the difficult lessons of the ’72 Olympics to rebuild his path to his new world record.
He continues to use those lessons today, now to teach other Olympic hopefuls about the true meaning of determination and will.
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