DeMaria praises ND community
Sam Stryker | Monday, April 23, 2012
On a snowy January night 20 years ago, a bus carrying the Notre Dame women’s swimming team slid off the Indiana Toll Road and rolled over.
Then-freshman Haley Scott DeMaria suffered a broken back and was paralyzed in the accident.
Doctors told her she might never walk again.
But DeMaria beat the odds. Not only did she regain the ability to walk, she returned to swim for the Fighting Irish the following year.
DeMaria, who will deliver this year’s Commencement Address on May 20, returned to campus this weekend for the Blue-Gold Game and Monogram Club events. She said support from the Notre Dame community still runs strong, even two decades later.
“It’s been 20 years since the accident, and I can’t tell you how many people still care,” she said. “That level of caring is just different here.”
DeMaria said a visit from then-University President Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy after she came out of surgery following the accident was the first of many gestures of support she received throughout her recovery process.
“I didn’t come here as a Catholic, I wasn’t Catholic as a student,” she said. “[Malloy] said, ‘Can I pray with you?’ I remember saying what most non-Catholics would say, ‘But I’m not Catholic.’ And he said, ‘That doesn’t matter. Can we pray?'”
DeMaria said this visit from Fr. Malloy marked a significant point in her recovery.
“I knew at that moment I would be fine. It didn’t matter that I was a freshman, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t walk or I may never swim again for the University,” she said. “I was part of this family, and whatever shape that was going to take, I would be fine.”
DeMaria said she believes she would not have received the same level of support had she attended a different university. She said it was “amazing” that students, faculty, professors and coaches continued to visit her at the hospital in the two months following the accident.
“It’s very characteristic to have support at the initial time of an incident or accident happening, but that support never went away,” she said. “That’s what I think is so unique to Notre Dame.”
Physically, DeMaria said the toughest point in her recovery was when she was transferred from South Bend to a hospital in San Diego two months following the accident.
“By that point, my spine had re-collapsed, they weren’t able to straighten my spine. I was looking at a life being very uncomfortable,” she said. “I had suffered heart failure, my lungs had collapsed. I was really in bad shape, physically.”
DeMaria said moving away from the Notre Dame family came with emotional challenges as well.
“I didn’t have people coming to see me every day,” she said. “It was a very isolating time, because I didn’t necessarily have the level of support that I did here, because people just didn’t know.”
DeMaria returned to campus in the fall, gradually recovered and began to swim again. Because swimming was such a big part of her life at Notre Dame, DeMaria said returning to the pool and the swim team was the highlight of her recovery.
“Swimmers are swimmers. It’s all that I can do … I’m at home in the pool. Someone asked me today what my favorite place on campus is, is it the Grotto or Rolfs [Aquatic Center],” she said. “Well, I love the Grotto, but Rolfs is Rolfs – it’s that sense of chlorine, that smell.”
A year after returning to campus, DeMaria swam in her first meet since the accident, winning her heat of the 50-yard freestyle.
But she said the meet was not so much a personal achievement as it was a representation of the strength of the University family. Not only were professors and fellow students in attendance, but the state trooper who first responded to the accident and her emergency room doctor were present as well.
“It was also almost like every other meet,” she said. “That’s what I wanted it to be, at least for myself. It was a big deal in the sense that it was such an illustration of the sense of community that is here.”
DeMaria said receiving the Beeler-Hipp Award, named for freshmen Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp, who died in the bus accident, was the “greatest honor” she could have received at the time. First awarded her freshman year to a freshman male and female swimmer, she said the Beeler-Hipp Award remains the most meaningful honor she has ever been given.
“To be honored in their name, and to have known them, has always been one of the most meaningful things to me,” she said.
In January, Notre Dame held a Mass of Remembrance in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the 20th anniversary of the bus crash. DeMaria said she originally planned to spend the day with her family, but when the Mass was organized, she knew she had to attend.
“It was the right place for me to be. I think I knew I would wake up that morning and want to be here … Once I knew there was going to be a Mass, I knew I had to be here. It wasn’t an option to not get here,” she said. “It was exactly what it should be.”
In her current role as first vice president of the Monogram Club, DeMaria said she loves interacting with student-athletes at Notre Dame. Through these relationships, DeMaria said she realizes while the campus has changed physically, the University spirit she experienced as a student is still alive.
“That sense of what the students do, and the traditions that haven’t gone away, just sort of those snapshots of life here on campus, a lot of that hasn’t changed,” she said. “I love that.”
When she considers how far she has come in the time since the accident, DeMaria said she is thankful for the good that has come out of such a trying experience.
“When I say it truly changed everything in my life, it truly changed everything in my life,” she said. “I am so blessed and so happy, and find meaning in things I never would have before. It’s a challenge at times to think that all of this stemmed from such a sad event … It’s hard to be grateful for something that happened, yet I’m so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned because of it.”