Brutal wreck behind her, Rams' Clark makes state

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

Some 100 yards stood between Karen and Roger Clark and their severely injured daughter, creating a separation that made their wait more excruciating.

It was June 7, 2009, and the middle of their three daughters was pinned in a mangled, white 1996 Infiniti, not far off the road but down an embankment and in some trees. Rescue officials prohibited the couple from seeing or touching their child, only returning to offer updates.

For what seemed like an eternity, the Clarks' only report was that Kristin, a rising senior at Grayson High School, had a broken femur. After waiting nearly an hour while she was freed from the wreckage, more news came from a firefighter that the teen needed to be transported by helicopter to Grady Memorial Hospital.

Nearly two hours passed at Grady before the terrified parents got their first glimpse of bandaged and bruised Kristin with a chest tube. The visual was every parent's nightmare, hard to look at even for Karen, a registered nurse. But at long last, she and her husband could touch their daughter.

"It was awful, you just felt so helpless as a mother because you at least wanted to hold her hand and try to help her," Karen said. "And then there was the unknown of not knowing the outcome."

At that point, being alive was a blessing. Walking seemed doubtful for some time. Swimming competitively, Kristin's love since she was 4, looked impossible.

At least it seemed that way until Kristin spent months in rehabilitation, all the with goal of returning to Grayson's swim team. She endured that painful recovery to make sure her swimming career had a happy ending.

It will at Monday's state meet.

'I thought I was going to die'

June 7 was a typical warm day in Georgia, perfect for lounging at the neighborhood pool. Kristin joined her friends there, even offering to get them drinks at the nearby QuikTrip.

She made it, picking up mega-sized drinks that didn't fit well in her cupholders. On the brief trip home, one of the drinks fell and spilled in the passenger seat.

Rushing to wipe it up, she took her eyes off the road. Her car veered off the roadside and she over-corrected, losing control as it went down an embankment and into a stand of trees that ended up stopping the out-of-control car.

"I just closed my eyes," Kristin recalled. "I thought I was going to die. I thought I was there forever by myself, but it was only 10 minutes or so. I woke up hazy and I heard a lady talking to me. I was just yelling out my mom's name and number."

Karen was at a neighborhood graduation party when the call came in. She didn't recognize the number, so she pondered ignoring it. Then shock took over as she heard the voice on the other end, "Your daughter's been in an accident."

The Clarks' two-mile drive from their neighborhood couldn't end fast enough. Even when they arrived, the substantial distance kept them from knowing what Kristin was going through. Their view of the Infiniti's passenger side shielded the worst damage.

Though she avoided major head and spine trauma, she still had lost a good deal of blood. As workers tried to free her, she struggled to stay alert.

"I just kept falling asleep," Kristin said. "I wanted to sleep but they wouldn't let me."

By the time she landed at Grady, doctors were taking note of her many injuries. She had broken her femur and hip, and had torn apart her hip flexor muscles (that attach the femur to the pelvis and move the knee upward). She broke both collarbones and four ribs, had two collapsed lungs and was bleeding heavily.

She spent the next 17 days recovering at Grady, followed by 10 more days of rehabilitation during a stay at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta-Scottish Rite.

The damage to her leg and hip required two surgeries as doctors placed rods in both locations, along with a fixator to stabilize the bone. She moved around in a walker and a wheelchair.

Anger about the accident bothered her as much as the pain. So did one recurring thought.

"Swimming meant so much to me," said Kristin, a four-year varsity swimmer at Grayson. "I've swam year-round since I was 8. It took all my time, three hours a day all these years. So it was devastating at first when I thought I couldn't do it again."

The comeback

Kristin's swimming background, doctors told her, got her back into the pool faster. Young and athletic, her body healed remarkably fast.

She helped her cause with two more months of CHOA rehab, eventually regaining use and some mobility in her left leg. It still doesn't bend like her right leg, but it works well enough in the water.

Just four months after the accident, she was back in the pool.

"I was thinking, 'I have to swim,'" Kristin said. "In rehab, I tried so hard and I did everything I could do to get back to swimming again."

Her return to practice stunned her Grayson coaches.

"Even with the injuries and all she went through, as soon as she came back she was better than the average high school swimmer," Rams coach Bill Nye said. "The way she has recovered is phenomenal."

"She could have taken a break and taken the easy route," Grayson assistant Jason Heslep said. "She could have not practiced for months, just rested and enjoyed her senior year. But she didn't."

Admittedly nervous, Kristin fought the jitters at her first practice. They came again at her first meet. Then the splash of the water washed away the fear.

In the stands, more waterworks were going on.

"(My husband and I) were both crying the first swim meet because it was such a miracle," Karen said. "It's just been wonderful. It's been a blessing and a miracle to see this happen. ... To see her swimming again is amazing."

Watching their daughter on the team again brought the Clarks a feeling of accomplishment, though their daughter wasn't satisfied. Racing the clock is a constant for swimmers, especially those who train 12 months a year. Sure, she was back. But Kristin didn't like her times.

She proceeded to drop a second off her 50-yard freestyle and almost two seconds off her 100 free, with the goal of earning spots on the Rams' two state-qualified relays.

Of the 32 girls on the Grayson swim team, only the swimmers with the four fastest times earn spots on the 200 free and 200 medley relays. Sympathy doesn't play a factor in the selection process, it's strictly time.

Kristin's times put her on both relays. Now she gets to close her swimming career at the state meet and officially complete her comeback from a horrifying accident, one that gave her scars and taught her some valuable lessons.

"I didn't drive fast before, but I definitely drive the speed limit now, with two hands on the wheel," she said. "I don't use the phone when I drive. I don't text. I'm really cautious. I don't want that to happen again."