He hadn’t been sick. Except for persistent pain in his upper back, between his neck and his shoulder blades, Todd Sand was the picture of health when he traveled to Calgary early this year to coach promising pair skaters Sonia Baram and Daniel Tioumentsev at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships.
The first part of the competition went well, with the stylish duo performing the top-ranked short program. But that night, when Sand called his wife and fellow coach, Jenni Meno, he mentioned he was tired and achy and would go to bed early. Meno, his skating partner at two Olympics and the delicate but strong flower in their medal-winning performances at three world championships, had stayed home to work with the other pairs they coach at Great Park Ice in Irvine. She wasn’t especially alarmed by his call.
Her world turned upside down, however, when the phone rang again at 3 a.m. Calls at that hour rarely bring good news, and this one, from an agonized Sand, changed their family’s life in ways that are still unfolding.
“I could tell something was really wrong but I did not think he was having a heart attack, because it wasn’t a pain in his chest,” she said. She told him to notify the leader of the U.S. skating delegation, Lori Parker, who quickly summoned the team doctor. Parker recently told her Sand tried to walk out of the room before suddenly going into cardiac arrest.
He didn’t wake up for a long time. When he did, he couldn’t move. His doctors weren’t sure if he ever would. His kidneys weren’t functioning and he needed dialysis.
Worst of all, he had suffered a hypoxic brain injury because his heart had stopped beating for an hour, depriving his brain of oxygen. He had to learn to walk again in rehab. When he finally went home to Aliso Viejo, this strong-willed, strong-bodied former athlete who turned 60 on Oct. 30, but looks much younger, needed help to navigate the stairs in their house.
“He remembers things from the past, which is great,” Meno said last week after a coaching session. “It’s more short-term memory. If he sat and talked with you here, we might get in the car and he wouldn’t remember.”
But the deep connection to the sport in which he was successful as a competitor and a coach remains unbroken: When he visits the rink he remembers various skating moves and their values in the sport’s point system, recreating his longtime role as an International Skating Union technical specialist.
“Physically he’s pretty good. He’s not happy where he is physically and he notices that more. But if you were to see him walking around or in a picture, he looks great, fine. He looks good,” Meno said. “He has coordination issues, initiation of movement. So there’s definitely issues of strength and coordination.
“But he’s here.”
And that’s worth celebrating.
They were lucky the paramedics arrived quickly, that he received excellent treatment in Calgary and, later, at a rehabilitation facility not far from home. His movement returned gradually. That his kidneys spontaneously resumed functioning after about eight weeks was another blessing Meno gratefully counted.
“That would be a different quality of life if that wasn’t the case,” she said. “A lot of things went in our favor, for sure.”
She has had to become a physical therapist, a tireless advocate for her husband within the infernal maze of the healthcare system, and more. When the couple’s oldest son, Jack, was a senior at Crean Lutheran High and was seeking college baseball scholarship offers, he asked her to operate the speed gun for one of his pitching starts, the better to inform recruiters of his abilities. She obliged.
“I never did it. Todd always did it,” she said. “And he starts throwing 90. That was a big breakthrough. After that he started getting a lot of bigger-school interest.”
Jack, a left-hander, is a freshman pitcher at the University of Washington. The couple’s youngest son, Matt, is a junior at Aliso Niguel High.
“My boys, I hate for them that this happened. I think it’s amazing how they are with him,” she said. “They don’t have their dad in the same way but they’re doing OK and I think Jack, our older son, maybe he wouldn’t be where he is and doing as well as he is if this hadn’t happened. And our younger son, Matthew, he’s so good with his dad.”
After initially staying at Todd’s side, she returned to coaching at his urging. When she’s at the rink, where she and an accomplished team led by Christine Fowler-Binder oversee four senior-level pairs, two junior pairs, one novice pair and one intermediate pair, Meno’s parents take Todd to physical therapy sessions. But soon, her parents will go back to their home and lives, and she’s not sure how everything will work after they leave and she ramps up her skaters’ final preparations for the U.S. championships next month.
For Meno and Sand — who were skating with other partners in Costa Mesa when they met, teamed up and then married in 1995 — life is now about adapting and appreciating every day and every small gain. Todd, despite being aware of his diminished physical state, has maintained the positive outlook that makes him an effective coach and so beloved that several of his former students have chosen to work alongside him and Jenni.
“It’s kind of like a new normal for Todd,” she said. “The one thing we’re super fortunate with is that he’s so nice and patient. And he never gets frustrated or angry, and the doctors have told us some people could be very angry and hard to deal with. My mom says he’s always thanking her.”
It’s impossible to predict how much more progress he will make. She’s hopeful his brain will create new pathways around the damaged areas; they’ve tried acupuncture and TMS therapy, which uses magnetic impulses to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. She thinks it might help his spirits to get back on the ice, a familiar and happy place, but she’s waiting for the right time.
“Definitely, he’s not the same Todd,” she said, “but we’re very fortunate and he’s still here and he still has a good quality of life.”
On one wrist she wears a bracelet made by the mom of one of Jack’s high school teammates, a band that features the phrase #SandmanStrong. Todd was always so strong when they skated, lifting her and catching her and jumping alongside her. He’s a different kind of strong now and he’s still here.