Her Irish swimming saga remains an inspiration
In Annapolis, Md., a picturesque city on Chesapeake Bay, Haley Scott DeMaria, 37, a native of Phoenix Ariz., keeps a frenetic schedule of carpooling, volunteering and tending to her husband, Jamie, and two sons, James, 9, and Edward, 8.
Few people she meets around town know that 600 miles to the northwest, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, she is and always will be Haley Scott, a beloved symbol of courage, perseverance, faith and, maybe, a miracle.
For many at Notre Dame the 1992 tragedy that hit the women’s swimming team remains a raw memory. A bus, ferrying the team home from a meet at Northwestern, skids in a snowstorm on the Indiana Toll Road just after midnight on Friday, Jan. 24, doing a complete flip and coming to rest in the median strip about two miles west of campus. Two freshman swimmers, Colleen Hipp and Meghan Beeler, die instantly. Scott manages to pull herself out, but can’t stand up. She realizes she can’t feel her legs. A teammate, Susan Bohdan, gives a life-changing order. She tells Haley to lie still on the icy ground, a circumstance that likely contributes to Haley’s being able to rush around Annapolis today, leading a normal life.
“The ice pack was stabilizing my spine,” she recalls.
The tragedy deeply affected the campus in coming days. On a sheet hanging from South Dining Hall, were the words: “God bless our swimmers.” While Scott, the most seriously injured survivor, lay paralyzed in Memorial Hospital, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was filled for a Mass in memory of the two swimmers who perished. Malcolm Moran, then a sportswriter for the New York Times, covered the funeral of Beeler the following Monday in the Basilica. Two decades later, the reporter, though not an alum, says, “If you hear the alma mater sung under tragic circumstances like that, it never sounds the same again.”
Meantime, in South Bend’s Memorial Hospital, a critical deadline 48 hours after the accident had passed. Scott still had no feeling below her waist. A well-meaning nurse braced her with the words, “You will never walk or swim again.” She was trying to prepare Haley for a very different future.
But the patient wasn’t buying. That was Sunday, Jan. 26. Two days later, Scott was able to move her big toe. From that moment on there were many medical ups and downs, including three complicated surgeries in
San Diego to repair her spine so she could stand upright. When the doctors went in the third time, primarily to repair a lymph node that had been nicked in the second surgery, Dr. Steven Garfin, an orthopedic specialist, was able to snap her spine back into place. It had been considered the last chance. Doctors said she could not have withstood another operation. She would go on to swim again competitively, dramatically winning her first race back before many family and friends on Oct. 28, 1993, less than two years after the accident.
The riveting story of Haley Scott’s ordeal is recounted in her book, What Though the Odds, that she wrote with Bob Schaller in 2008. (It is available through her website, haleybook.com.) A film, tentatively titled Two Miles From Home, is presently in the planning stages. Still, the story of Haley Scott will not end with her comeback at Notre Dame, or with her book or with the film. She has embraced a mission to inspire others and she works at it full time, though there was a long journey toward this public role.
After graduating in 1995, Scott went back home to Phoenix and coached swimming at her high school, Xavier. She began seeing more of an acquaintance from Notre Dame who had been the swim team’s student manager, Jamie DeMaria. They had been acquaintances on campus and, later, friends. By 1998 they were dating. In Venice, Italy, the following fall they got engaged, and married a year later.
Jamie, now executive director of strategic development for a medical website, Medscape, worked on the East Coast.
Haley, after years of post-accident attention, remembers “how nice it was to go from being Haley Scott … to being Haley Scott DeMaria, living on the East Coast. I sort of enjoyed having that opportunity to start over.”
Less known than the fact she recovered from the accident and swam again, is that she never swam any faster than that day in October 1993 when she won her race. The lingering mental and physical effects of the accident remain. For someone who had been a superior athlete for all of her formative years, this was a struggle.
“I was trying to figure out my own life and my own identity.” She jokes that she has “an old body.” There is no feeling in her feet and she continually watches her balance. She ran a marathon in Los Angeles in 1997 just to prove “I could set a goal and my body could still do it.”
But for years, none of her new friends in Annapolis knew what she had overcome.
In 2003, Scott returned to Notre Dame to speak to an academic recognition dinner for student-athletes. She talked about her recovery and athletic comeback. After returning to Annapolis, she remembers “feeling called” to share her experiences with a neighbor and mother of four small children who was terminally ill with breast cancer. She dropped off a copy of her Notre Dame talk.
“I will never forget being in my front yard …and she came over. She gave me a big hug and said, ‘You understand.’”
In a life full of dramatic inflections, this was another one. “That was a real moment for me: I have this story and it’s very powerful. What do I do with it?”
Scott was pregnant at the time with James, providing an answer to yet another question about how normal her life might be after the accident. Jamie recalls, “Though preoccupied with first one, then two young children, Haley became more open to telling her story to a wider audience.”
USA Swimming was pushing Scott to consent to a film project; she decided to go ahead. Though that film was never made, it led to her decision to write her book. After the book, her speaking career took off and, eventually, the new film project was launched. She makes as many as four appearances a week. During October 2011 she spoke at hospitals in South Bend and Des Moines and to other audiences in Cedar Rapids, Phoenix and Atlanta. Jamie also travels extensively for his work.
“She’s always accommodated me. Now it’s sort of her time.” He laughs about their struggles with coordinating schedules and “the recollection of conversations that may or may not have taken place.”
Along with raising their two sons, Haley and Jamie are a “sponsor family” for two midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy each year, providing a place for the future officers to unwind on weekends.
Haley says, “Community doesn’t just show up. You just don’t have it. You have to be a part of it.”
To those who know her (including this writer), the demand to see and hear Haley is not a mystery. Though unfailingly pleasant and warm, her blue eyes are fixed with an intensity that says, “I am a serious person with important things to tell you.” In her presentations, she speaks confidently and with almost no hesitations, though Jamie says she needed coaching at first and “she is actually a very shy person.”
Despite all she went through, and the painful loss of her friends, Meghan and Colleen, she feels fortunate.
“I would never say I was glad this happened, but I am extremely thankful for the blessings that have come from it, including such a perspective that I have on life that I wouldn’t otherwise.”
Jamie says the accident “completely transformed her as a person,” among other effects making her “a more compassionate person.” Whenever she tells her story, she is unfailingly generous in thanking her family, doctors, coaches and friends who were there to help.
Scott, who will become president of the Notre Dame Monogram Club in 2013, is devoted to Notre Dame. She insisted on staying in South Bend for as long as possible after the bus accident.
“I was never a day without multiple visitors,” despite warning from experts that the visits would tail off after a few days. She says of the University, “They took this tragedy in my life and sort of molded me and put me down a path that is where I am now.”
Not that the scars, both physical—“My back looks like a roadmap”—and psychological, don’t remain. There were challenges for years getting through the Januarys, though that changed with the birth of James on Jan. 23, 2002, a day shy of the 10th anniversary.
Then there was the issue of riding on busses. For 14 years after the accident, Haley did not get on a bus. At the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 3, 2007, Jamie and Haley were preparing to go to the game where Notre Dame would face LSU. It would be possible to walk, but there was a bus for the Notre Dame fans. Jamie asked if she wanted to walk, but she indicated it was time to clear another hurdle.
They sat in the front seat to allow for a premature exit, Jamie recalls.
He looked at her and asked whether she could make it.
She replied, “Yeah, I’m good.”