When we last saw Sammy Boulmetis, he had been caught in the act of accepting too much help from his girl friend, Cyd Snellings.
"That glass!" said the redhead Maggie, a physical therapist. Cyd held a milkshake glass so Sammy could sip from its straw. "What are you doing holding that for Sam?"
Cyd's silence said, yes, she was guilty of this dark deed.
"Sam holds his own glass," Maggie said.
This was in a Philadelphia hospital last April, a month after Boulmetis broke his back riding at Pimlico. Doctors twice operated on the young jockey and put his lower spine back together with stuff that sounds like an all-star lineup from Tru-Value. "They've got springs and rods and screws and staples in there," Boulmetis said this week. "The X-rays look like a junkyard."
Laughter moved along the phone line. Who's to know what to tell somebody with a broken neck or broken back, but they made a mistake 14 months ago telling Sammy Boulmetis he might never sit up again.
He held his own milkshake that day when he seemed so frail, seemed forever flattened against the bed by pitiless gravity. Now he walks.
"I'm doing a lot better," he said. "Even some pain is going away."
Boulmetis wears molded plastic braces on his legs, under his jeans, and he walks with hand crutches, swinging his legs along. The other day his brother, Jimmy, needed somebody to drive a horse van 100 miles. Sammy did it. He has enough control of his right leg, where feeling has returned down to the knee, to drive an automatic transmission car.
For seven years, Boulmetis had been a rider, a nice kid whose quick smile made him everyone's buddy in the jock's room. His father, Sam Sr., was a Hall of Fame rider. Julie Snellings, Cyd's sister, was the country's best woman jockey in 1977 when she broke her neck in a spill. From her wheelchair at Pimlico, she will watch the Preakness today.
Now, at 25, Sammy Boulmetis is another of the 40 brave riders who won't ride again because of paralysis.
The National Spinal Cord Injury Association says 20,000 Americans suffer spinal cord damage every year. Auto accidents are the leading cause, with sports injuries second. "One injury every 25 minutes," said Louise McKnew, the NSCIA boss who preaches that spinal cord injuries are not necessarily permanent. "Research is incredibly promising in minimizing if not preventing paralysis," she said. "It's not the least bit hopeless."
Prompt attention at hospitals with spinal cord units is essential, McKnew said. Sammy Boulmetis had such treatment. His injury, to the lower spine, is also the sort most likely to respond.
Yet they first told Boulmetis he might never sit up again. "I guess they paint as black a picture as they can," he said. "Then if anything better happens, it's gravy. Now I only use my wheelchair in the house. I'm small enough and light enough they could make these plastic braces that are molded right next to the skin. I have these Canadian crutches, up over my forearms like, and I swing through the gate."
Boulmetis wore a molded body vest until November. In December he learned to walk again.
"It's unbelievable the things he's doing," said Sammy's father, and his mother said, "He just keeps getting stronger. It's wonderful."
"I've been lucky," Boulmetis said. "This first year has been depressing sometimes, that's true. But I don't get upset much about anything ever. I could have been so much worse off. Dave Ashcroft, you know him?"
Another of the kewpie dolls in bright silks perched atop half-ton animals flying 40 miles per hour, David Ashcroft broke his neck in a spill a couple months after Boulmetis went down.
"Dave's a quadriplegic. I see him and I see how much worse it could have been."
At times this first year with the hardware store sewn into his back, Boulmetis said the pain was terrible. "It's like spasms," he said. "And phantom pains, like amputees who still feel their feet. I go through all that. You know Ron Turcotte, right?"
Turcotte, who rode Secretariat, is another of the 40 jockeys paralyzed.
"I read an article where Ron said his pain felt like barbed wire around his chest and somebody was twisting it."
Boulmetis tried everything against pain, including acupuncture. "The only treatment I get now is acupuncture once a week. I'm a believer. I couldn't sit up 10-15 minutes because of pain. I've been able, with acupuncture, to cut down my pain medication."
This summer Boulmetis will attend a race track official's school in New York. He figures his future is around racing. "I have an edge there," he said, still using a rider's jargon.
He's also buying a condominium in Cherry Hill, N.J.
"Cyd and I are going to get married at the end of this summer," he said, and over the phone line you could hear a smile this big.