When the U.S. Olympic luge team heads for the track in Calgary next month, don't be surprised to see one of its top medal contenders hobbling to his sled on crutches and being lowered into sliding position by his teammates.

That would be Miroslav Zajonc of Annapolis, the only North American ever to win a world luge championship, whose 16-year quest for an Olympic berth was seemingly shattered 12 days ago by a harrowing crash.

In an accident his coach called "unbelievable," Zajonc, 27, smashed the main bone in his right foot into fragments on the last turn of his last run of training at Lake Placid, N.Y., the day before Olympic trials began.

Zajonc, who is in Lake Placid recuperating while the U.S. team heads to Europe for final training, had finished several fast doubles runs with partner Tim Nardiello that day. Although his back was hurting, he chose to make one last afternoon singles run down the slick channel.

But on the final turn of that final run, he lost control and the sled went high up the banking. Riding on his back at 65 m.p.h. with his feet stretched out beyond the leading edge of the sled, Zajonc felt his unprotected right foot slam into a protective wooden structure designed to keep errant lugers from going over the top.

He managed to stay on the sled and Nardiello, who was close by, saw him stagger to the finish. "When I got there, his foot looked like a grapefruit that was broke open," said Nardiello. "It was nothing but bones and blood. I said to him, 'You're done.' "

Nardiello wasn't alone. "The first doctors who saw him said, 'He'll never slide again,' " said team manager Mary Ellen Fletcher.

"It was a very bad injury," Zajonc conceded. "My heel bone was split in half and there were many, many fragments. And there was about an eight-inch cut, all the way to the bone."

Doctors spent an hour and a half operating. When it was over, they figured Zajonc couldn't even think about walking for two months. With the Olympics five weeks away, it looked a hopeless case.

But the doctors may have misjudged the man.

Zajonc (pronounced Zie-on) is a Czechoslovakian refugee whose sights have been set on the Olympics since age 11. Twice denied, he isn't giving up yet.

Zajonc was on the Czech junior team as a youngster, then the national team, but when the Olympic squad was picked in 1980 he was still considered too young, he said, and wasn't chosen.

In 1981, he went on vacation to Austria and defected, making his way quickly to the United States where he hoped to join the luge team. But under U.S. policy, no one ineligible for the next Olympics was allowed on the team. With a five-year wait for citizenship and only three years before the next Games, Zajonc was unwelcome.

He was, however, welcomed at the Annapolis home of Martin and Dolores Hughes, who met him in Lake Placid and took a liking to him. They became his sponsors and he stayed with them while temporarily joining the Canadian team, which has no citizenship restrictions. Sliding for Canada, he won the world singles championship in 1983 and remains the only North American ever to have done so.

As a man with no country, he was ineligible for the 1984 Olympics, but when they were over he finally joined the U.S. team, his goal in reach.

According to Hughes, "Everything Miro has done for the last seven years has been aimed at the Olympics. He's been totally dedicated, 12 months a year. This was his whole reason for being."

And he was a shoo-in to make the team as half the top U.S. doubles unit and one of the top four singles sliders, according to coach Wolfgang Schaedler.

Within days after the accident, Zajonc was scheming ways he might still compete. Singles was out of the question, but with some clever design work he and his doctor, Ed Hixon, came up with a cast that he just might be able to slide doubles in.

The cast will be pointed at the end, holding his foot at a downturned angle so it slices neatly through the air, aerodynamics being a key part of the battle in luge. Zajonc rides in the front, so his feet break the wind.

"I won't be able to walk," said Zajonc, "but once you're on the sled you don't need your feet for anything. You steer with your legs and, in doubles, my partner can do the braking."

The biggest problem may be getting Zajonc onto the sled. "We're going to have to pick him up and lower him down on it," said Fletcher, the team manager, who added that at 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, "He's a big guy."

Schaedler is holding a spot open and is optimistic. A final decision will be made Feb. 3. Meantime, Zajonc's stitches will come out Wednesday and his doctors are encouraged that there is no sign of infection.

Zajonc remains remarkably cheerful. He said he long ago decided this was his last shot and he has no aim to compete again. "It's my last chance, so I'll take a risk," he said. "I'm thinking about the future now. I just hope to be able go {to Calgary} and, for a miracle, to win a medal."

Said Schaedler: "It was not the right time for this. Now we just have to make the best of it. Miro is in a very good mood. He is very strong. I think he will come back."

The U.S. luge team, selected at last weekend's trials, is:

Men's singles: Frank Masley, Newark, Del.; Tim Nardiello, Lake Placid, N.Y.; Duncan Kennedy, Lake Placid.

Men's doubles (two sleds): Joe Barile, Saddle River, N.J., and Steve Maher, Chicago; and either Jason Malley and Lance Curley, both of Leverett, Mass., or Miroslav Zajonc, Annapolis, Md., and Tim Nardiello, Lake Placid.

Women's singles: Bonny Warner, Mt. Baldy, Calif.; Cammy Miller, Lake Placid; Erica Terwilleger, Lake Placid.