Nov. 11, 2009
Notre Dame, Ind. – By Craig Chval
Too frequently, it seems, gratitude is a fleeting sentiment.
In the crush of life, gratitude can feel like a momentary condition, like being hot or cold or hungry or tired. Sometimes, however, gratitude is not something that we feel, but something that we do. For some, gratitude becomes a way of life.
Haley Scott DeMaria is one of those people.
As an 18-year-old freshman at Notre Dame in 1992, Scott DeMaria was a member of the Notre Dame women’s swim team making its way back from a meet against Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. As the team bus was within a few miles of the Notre Dame campus, it skidded off the icy surface of the Indiana Toll Road, plunging down an embankment and rolling over.
Two of Scott DeMaria’s teammates, Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp, were thrown from the bus and killed. Scott DeMaria was able to pull herself out of a window, remaining on her back in the cold and snow for over an hour.
Within hours, Scott DeMaria was undergoing emergency back surgery, as doctors raced to minimize permanent damage from swelling against her spine. The prognosis for a full recovery was grim.
But despite being told by doctors that the most favorable outcome would be to walk with the aid of braces, Scott DeMaria was walking with a cane within five weeks of the accident.
Defying doctors’ predictions that she would be hospitalized for a year, Scott DeMaria spent less than two months in the hospital before returning home to Phoenix. When she announced her intention to return to Notre Dame to complete the spring semester, her parents were less than completely enthusiastic.
Scott DeMaria prevailed, and finished the academic year at Notre Dame with two rods in her spine and a torso body cast. The summer brought more trouble, however. One of the rods in her back broke, requiring three additional surgeries. Scott DeMaria was confined to her bed in a San Diego hospital for a month, but made it back to Notre Dame for the fall semester.
That Scott DeMaria would be back at Notre Dame, on track to graduate with her class and walking was no small miracle. But she was far from finished.
Not only would Scott DeMaria resume competing on Notre Dame’s swim team, but on Oct.29, 1993, she would post her best time ever in the 50-yard freestyle, capturing her heat with a mark of 25.04.
Following her graduation, Scott DeMaria returned to Phoenix, were she taught and coached swimming at her alma mater, Xavier High School. She left Notre Dame resolved to do two things: convert to Catholicism and ensure that she was always surrounded by the kind of community she had encountered at Notre Dame.
“It was just a formalization of a life I was already living,” explains Scott DeMaria of her decision to join the Catholic faith.
As far as community, she recognized in Xavier much of what she found so important about Notre Dame.
“It was a similar but smaller campus, faith-filled and with a very strong family element,” she says.
Xavier was also the place where Scott DeMaria would continue the healing that had begun at Notre Dame. One of her faculty responsibilities was to serve as an advisor to the student council. One of the student council members was killed by a drunk driver the night of Xavier’s prom; the young woman had not been drinking.
“What I saw was what I imagined happening at Notre Dame while I was in the hospital,” Scott DeMaria says. “Friends coming together to support one another during a terrible tragedy; trying to make sense of loss of life.” Now, Scott DeMaria was on the other side of the equation.
“It felt really good for me to be able to take my grief and be able to help somebody else,” she explains.
Right around the same point in time, a meeting with the late actor Christopher Reeve prompted Scott DeMaria to reflect even more deeply upon what she had been through.
During their conversation, Reeve and Scott DeMaria became aware of how similar their injuries were; the difference in precise location of their traumas to their spinal cords meant Reeve lived out his life in a wheel chair while Scott DeMaria was able to battle to regain her ability to walk.
“I’ll never forget him looking at me and saying, `You’re one of the lucky ones,'” she recalls.
“It wasn’t that I was feeling unlucky, but I wasn’t feeling lucky,” she allows. “That was a pretty big turning point for me.
“I began searching for what I was supposed to be doing with this.”
As her soul-searching continued, Scott DeMaria married former Notre Dame classmate Jamie DeMaria in 2000.
“I was Haley Scott, Notre Dame swimmer,” she says. “And I moved back to Phoenix and everybody knew me as Haley Scott, Notre Dame swimmer.
“And that was great, but when you get married, that changes,” she explains. “I like that sense of being able to create who I wanted to be.”
As she had promised herself, a big part of who Scott DeMaria wanted to be was a person surrounded by a loving community. Scott DeMaria built that community by serving others; she taught Sunday school classes at church and became involved in the Notre Dame Monogram Club, currently serving as second vice-president.
After welcoming sons James and Edward (now seven and five) into the world, Scott DeMaria devoted herself to helping at the boys’ schools. Meanwhile, she continued to wrestle with what to do with her remarkable journey.
Scott DeMaria shared a portion of her story with a next-door neighbor who was battling terminal cancer at age 38 with four children. Rather than relating the voyage in a conversation, Scott DeMaria gave the woman a written copy of a speech she had given.
“I will never forget seeing her, barely able to walk, coming over from her house to mine and giving me a big hug and telling me, `You understand,'” recounts Scott DeMaria.
“I started to really look at myself and that I have healed and healed in a pretty amazing way and asked myself, `What am I supposed to be doing with this?’
“I was married, I had my children, I was happy,” she says. “I almost felt selfish keeping this to myself.”
Scott DeMaria decided to tell her story in a book. After two attempts that got sidetracked, Scott DeMaria produced What Tho’ The Odds, a first-person account of her remarkable journey. Currently in development as a screenplay, the book can be ordered at www.HaleyBook.com
“It’s such a great Notre Dame story and that story has nothing to do with me,” she insists. “It encompasses everything good about Notre Dame.
“Probably my favorite part of the book is that for these women to go through this real tragedy, away from home, and to come out of it healthy in all the ways that count,” she says. “It is such a testament to the school.
“We could have gone down so many paths, and none of us did.”
The response to the book has been overwhelming, from friends and former teammates to swimmers inspired by her comeback to high school students and their parents who have a new-found determination to find the kind of community that Scott DeMaria describes as existing at Notre Dame.
Scott DeMaria gets a particular kick out of the response of one of her friends to the book.
“Once she read it, she said, `I totally get you. Now I know exactly why you do the things you do, why you’re always saying yes. That’s what you have to do.'”
One of the many things that Scott DeMaria “has” to do is opening her family’s home to first-year cadets – “plebes” – at the United States Naval Academy. The first-year midshipmen have very restricted opportunities to leave the Academy, so local families fill the void for the “mids” who can’t get home.
“I love giving them a break,” she says. “We have made such great friendships and I love the role models that they are for my children.”
The relationships her family has formed with the midshipmen even allowed Scott DeMaria to find a silver lining in Notre Dame’s 2007 loss to Navy in football.
“One of our mids was actually at Notre Dame when Navy won, “she says. “There’s no question that we’re rooting for Notre Dame, but I was so proud when my midshipmen came back and relayed stories of how kind everyone was at Notre Dame.”
Few people have brought as much pride upon Notre Dame as has Scott DeMaria, who continues to credit Notre Dame for her journey.
“I’m such a great tangible example of how the Notre Dame experience can change somebody’s life.”