Growing up in an athletic family in Arizona, Haley Scott began swimming at a young age. Her tall frame and competitive nature made her powerful in the water, and afforded her the opportunity to swim at the collegiate level. When she began deciding among programs, she had specific criteria.
“My parents wanted me to choose a school from which I would be proud to graduate if I wasn’t a swimmer,” Scott said. “And I wanted to swim for a coach whom I really respected.”
These terms landed Scott at the University of Notre Dame, swimming for coach Tim Welsh. She was confident in her decision when she joined the Irish in the autumn of 1991, but she would not realize until later how right her choice had been.
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 24, 1992, Haley Scott’s life changed forever.
That night the Irish swim team was traveling back from a meet at Northwestern. The roads had iced over as a snowstorm blew through northern Indiana. The driver hit the brakes, invoking panic and terror as the bus slid off of the road and overturned just two miles from home.
Scott woke up to find that her life would never be the same. She was told that two of her teammates, fellow freshmen Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp, were killed in the accident. While Scott had survived, she had suffered a broken back and was now paralyzed.
Haley Scott was paralyzed in an accident that also killed two of her teammates when the bus they were riding home from a meet slid off an icy road two miles from the Notre Dame campus.
“My first memories were of trying to process it all,” she said. “The loss of my teammates was one of my first experiences with death, so it was very hard to make sense of it in addition to dealing with the injuries that I was now living with.”
As Scott’s parents were told about her options for living in a wheelchair, they determined that she would receive better care at a rehabilitation center in Colorado, but Scott refused to go.
“It was very important for me to stay in South Bend for my rehabilitation even though it wasn’t my parents’ first choice,” Scott said. “I had to be close to my teammates, and I had to be close to Notre Dame.”
The doctors told Scott that she would be in the hospital for at least a year; even then she might not walk, and she certainly would not be able to swim the way she once could. However, that wasn’t an acceptable solution for Scott. Not only was she going to walk, but she was going to swim again. While her dreams might have seemed impossible, Scott knew that she would overcome. She had two sources of motivation: Their names were Meghan and Colleen.
“Initially my thoughts were that I was going to walk and that I was going to swim; I was going to do it for my two teammates that had passed away, and I was going to do whatever it would take to reach my goals,” she said.
The recovery process was long and hard, but Scott relied on her experience as a swimmer to help her through the physical aspects of her rehabilitation, which she completed in two months, shattering the doctors’ prediction of one year.
“So much of what I learned as a student-athlete was exactly what I needed in those two months that I spent in the hospital. All of those skills – goal setting, hard work, persistence and listening to your body – we have to learn what you can push through and when you need to let your body rest. It was a huge benefit for me. It was a lot of hard work, but as athletes, we’re used to hard work.”
Those two months were full of grueling days of physical therapy that helped to mend Scott’s body, but even as she could see herself moving forward, her emotional recuperation was much harder to gauge.
“The physical challenges were tough,” she said. “But they weren’t as tough as the emotional ones. It’s hard to recognize the emotional challenges and it’s hard to see yourself improving.”
As Scott regained movement and mobility, she was still struggling with the difficulty of losing her teammates as well as her own independence. She had transformed overnight from an autonomous 18-year-old woman to someone who had to rely on her parents and her doctors for her every need. Even as Scott was able to leave the hospital and return to campus, she was not able to walk freely, and instead wore a full-body brace and used a golf cart to get from one class to the next.
It was in these emotional challenges where the university and the swim team were able to step in to help.
“I feel so lucky that we were at a place like Notre Dame when this happened, because Notre Dame took care of us in ways that were so essential to how we got through this,” Scott said. “Being student-athletes at Notre Dame, we were students first. It did not matter if we ever went back to the pool again; our needs in terms of healing were far more important than what we could do as athletes for the university.”
But Scott and her teammates did go back to the pool. In January 1993, after she was told she would never again compete in the sport that she loved, Scott was able to swim again.
“When I was actually able to get back into the water and swim, the best thing was being with my teammates and that smell of chlorine. I don’t know if it was the actual smell or what the smell represented: being back in the water and being with my teammates,” Scott said. “My teammates had gone through what I had gone through, and they could understand in a way that other people couldn’t.”
Once she was back in the pool, Scott was able to lean on her teammates and continue to progress both physically and emotionally. With the help of those who understood her trials, she was slowly taking back her independence.
On Oct. 29, 1993, 21 months after the accident that changed her life, Scott fulfilled her promise to swim again for Notre Dame. In her very first race back, she won her 50-meter heat. Even though she could not swim as fast as she once could, that did not matter. She had defied the odds.
Scott continued to swim for Notre Dame and was finally able to return to class full time. She graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in history in 1995, and then went back to Arizona, where she taught and coached at the high school she had attended, Xavier College Prep.
While she had left South Bend, the weight of what she had gone through during her college years was still heavy on her shoulders. Though they may not have realized it, the people close to her treated her differently. Scott jokes that her dad still would not allow her to carry her own suitcase.
Haley Scott wrote a book about her emotional journey from being paralyzed in the bus accident to her triumphant return to the pool, and she continues to use her story to inspire people through speaking engagements.
A new sense of healing came when Scott married Jamie DeMaria, a fellow Notre Dame graduate, and the couple moved to the East Coast to start a family. Scott had a new name and a new place, where no one knew her story. She no longer had to talk about the accident; she was moving forward.
Scott had been approached twice to write a book, once while still a student at Notre Dame and again shortly after graduation. While she briefly entertained the idea, she could not bring herself to go through with the project. She was still in the process of healing.
After living on the East Coast for a few years without telling her story to anyone, Scott felt called to share her experience with a neighbor, a 38-year-old woman with four young children who was dying of breast cancer. Haley wrote down the story of her accident and recovery, and gave it to her neighbor to read.
“There are some images that you will never forget,” said Scott. “And I will never forget the image of seeing her walk to my house – she could barely walk at the time – and when she gave me this huge hug and wouldn’t let go, she said ‘You understand.’ She was so emotional about finding someone who understood what it was like to go through a traumatic experience.”
That moment led Scott to realize that she could help people with her story. She had gone through something horrible, and she was blessed to come through it, while many others would not be as lucky. If she could have an impact on the lives of others, she wanted to be that change. She finally found the strength to sit down and write her story, which was published as the book, What Though the Odds: Haley Scott’s Journey of Faith and Triumph.
“The words ‘I understand’ are very powerful – that’s what really did it,” Scott said. “It took me a long time because I needed to be in a happy and healthy place in my life to be able to go back and look objectively at a very unhappy and unhealthy place.
“For me to share my story, and had it been easy for me, that doesn’t help anyone. But to be able to read the story and know that it’s really tough – the emotions are tough, not just the physical stuff – that’s where I have appreciated to opportunity to be able to reach people.”
Today, Scott continues to reach people not only through her book but also through speaking engagements and a movie that is in the works. She has spoken with student-athletes, coaches, college graduates and others to inspire them to move forward despite the challenges they will face.
“I love speaking with athletes because athletics can be tough,” said Scott. “There’s a level of perspective that is tough to have when faced with injury. I also love speaking to coaches, because I learned so much from my coach about what it means to be a strong person and how to live with what has happened to me.
“I had so many people care for me and help me when I went through this, and you can’t thank everyone, but you can be that goodness for someone else because it makes a huge difference in someone’s life when they are struggling. Life is tough, and we will all go through tough times. If I can help to navigate someone through that, I want to take the opportunity.”
• Spirit of Notre Dame
• Honda Award for Inspiration
• Woman of Courage (Xavier College Prep School)
• Gene Autry Courage in Sport Award
• 1994 Woman of the Year, as presented by the National Women’s Leadership Conference
• Fellow of the Institute for International Sport
• Honorary Degree from the University of Notre Dame (2012 Commencement Speaker)
• President of the University of Notre Dame Monogram Club (2013-15)