Badly injured in bike accident, Kokomo woman walks, dances and vows to ride again

Badly injured in bike accident, Kokomo woman walks, dances and vows to ride again

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Badly injured in bike accident, Kokomo woman walks, dances and vows to ride again

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Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, leaves after a physical therapy session at St. Vincent Health St. Joseph Physical and Sports Therapy, Thursday, October 20, 2016. She is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight.

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, leaves after a physical therapy session at St. Vincent Health St. Joseph Physical and Sports Therapy, Thursday, October 20, 2016. She is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight.

 GALVESTON – The evening of May 24, 2016 was as perfect a summer night as Donita Walters could have imagined for a bike ride.

The warm wind was good to her that night. No crosswind demanded she calculate her positioning. A slight tailwind from the south eased the final 4-mile stretch toward home, her final training run before embarking on a cross-country charity bike ride in two days. She was going to finish about 50 miles short of her 5,000-mile goal, but that didn’t bother her on such a “perfect evening.”

She remembers noticing the birds were singing earnestly. In her peripheral vision, farmers were prepping their fields while children filled the ball diamonds. She loved seeing kids active; it was one of the reasons she loved coaching. The world was exactly as she wanted it, right down to the singing birds.

“I’m always thanking the Lord for that song that night,” said Walters, 47. “It was beautiful. I was in conversation with God, just thanking him for the ability to be able to cycle and go on this ride. What a perfect evening He had given me that night.”

Eventually, she felt a car approach behind her. The gentleman behind the wheel was someone Walters said cyclists call “bike angels,” or people who patiently keep their distance and wait for a safe opportunity to pass a cyclist. He followed her for about 100 yards before taking his chance to pass her.

Then, in a blur of a moment, three things happened:

The man following her passed on her left. The vehicle behind him didn’t. She heard the shrill screeching of tires behind her, followed by the impact that threw her about 60 feet through the air into a ditch.

***

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight. Meanwhile, the tire marks from the car that hit her remain on the road where Walters was hit.

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight. Meanwhile, the tire marks from the car that hit her remain on the road where Walters was hit.

Addison Reckard hardly knew what do when she heard the news about Walter’s accident. Since Reckard began swimming competitively at 12, Walters was the only coach she had known. Walters was tough but equally encouraging, pushing Reckard toward excellence in the pool.

And now Walters was lying in a hospital bed in St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, heavily medicated, her neck in a brace, her body covered with scrapes and bruises.

“I knew she was strong and that she would fight, but I always knew there was a possibility that she wouldn’t make it,” Reckard said.

The news spread rapidly through the Kokomo swimming community around Howard County.

Some swimmers had been working with Walters since they were in elementary school, including Brooke Dill. She began swimming under Walters’ direction nine years ago, and now she was terrified to race her senior season without her career-long coach standing along the side of the pool.

“I do remember seeing my husband,” Walters said of the night of the accident. “I heard his voice. He was at my side, telling me to fight and to hang on. But I don’t remember the droves of people that came to the hospital. I guess I spoke to everyone.”

Walters’ pelvis was shattered. Her neck was broken on the right side. Rods, screws and sutures held body her together. But she was alive.

In the weeks that followed, the entire community of Kokomo seemed to rally around Walters and her family. Her church, Bennetts Switch United Methodist, ,  delivered meals every day to their ranch-style home. Parishioners planted flowers and mowed the lawn all summer.

When she called her boss, Kokomo athletic director Jason Snyder, and broke the news that she would not be able to return for the swim season, he promised to take care of her team and have her job waiting for her when she was ready to return. Same thing went for her teaching job at McKinley Alternative School.

But the road to recovery wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t going to be something she could force.

“I have had those moments where I told my husband I can’t do it anymore, where the headaches were so bad that the room was black,” Walters said in October from the hospital bed in her living room. “I couldn’t stand anybody to be in the room. I just sat here, I just laid here. … It was like I was a mole living underground.”

Most nights, pain would keep her awake. Some nights, it was the heartache, the realization that her accident affected all of the people connected to her — her family, her students, her swimmers.

Thinking about being away from them all hurts her, but something “very deep within” refused to let her accept defeat. Whatever the daily therapy sessions would throw at her, however painful the five surgeries, she told herself she was going to live again exactly the way she wanted. Her recovery time was expected to take 12 to 18 months, but she vowed to recover sooner.

“I have no doubt that she’ll be back next year,” Dill said. “Whatever she wants, she’ll make it happen.”

***

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, returns home from a physical therapy session, Thursday, October 20, 2016. She is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight.

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, returns home from a physical therapy session, Thursday, October 20, 2016. She is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight.

Matthew Walters cannot remember a day when his mother didn’t set a goal for herself, whether it was finding a new route to ride and or a new mountain to climb.  Still, five months to recover from the accident was an ambitious goal.

Walters was insistent. Her son was getting married Oct. 1, and she was going to dance with him at his wedding.

“I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to dance with him,” Walters said. “And I feel like we lose focus in life if we don’t have a goal.”

Perhaps it was the athlete inside her, fighting to regain some control. She had been in the best physical shape of her of life when the accident happened, she said. Doctors told her that might have been why she survived. That and the fact that she was wearing a helmet.

The process was more complicated than just building up the strength to climb out of her hospital bed. The damage to her hip socket and deterioration in her muscles meant Walters had to teach herself to walk again. She would need surgeries — lots of them — once she regained some muscular strength.

“I’m going to dance with him,” Walters insisted. “Nothing will stop me.”

Walters practiced walking on a treadmill in a pool of warm water with her therapists at St. Vincent. She graduated to moving around with a walker (and a supervisor). She closed her eyes and worked on her balance. She knew the wedding venue — Diamonds & Dust in Logansport — had stairs, so she practiced going up and down stairs.

The pain was immense, but her motherly determination was greater.

In five months, surrounded by family and friends, Walters was ready. She turned down her husband’s offer of a walker.  Two groomsmen took her by the arms and guided her across the dance floor to her son as sobs filled the room.

The music began playing, “Angels” by Randy Travis, and slowly they began to dance. Walters was terrified she would fall, but Matthew held her tight.

“Nobody else was there,” Walters said. “I didn’t know anybody that was in the room. It was just Matthew and I, in that moment, where we were able to dance together.”

She did it. She danced.

***

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, has a physical therapy session at St. Vincent Health St. Joseph Physical and Sports Therapy, Thursday, October 20, 2016. She is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight.

Donita Walters, who was hospitalized over the summer before going on a coast-to-coast bike ride, has a physical therapy session at St. Vincent Health St. Joseph Physical and Sports Therapy, Thursday, October 20, 2016. She is currently working on her recovery with goals in sight.

A week after the wedding, Walter sat in the passenger seat of a rented Mitsubishi Outlander and stared at the roads she had once biked on in the mountains near their other home near Fairplay, Colo. It had been almost a year since she rode down Hoosier Pass in Breckenridge, and her mind was on how much she wanted to ride again.

The mountains are special to her. She used to bring swimmers here to train at high elevation, about 10,000 feet in Fairplay. She climbed these mountains with all of her children, and eventually their spouses as well. Matthew proposed to his wife Amanda at the top of one of the 14,000-footers.

Thinking back on those memories, reality sets in for her.

“The hardest part is accepting that my body will never be what it was before,” Walters said. “The surgeon that operated on my hip looked me in the eye and said, ‘Donita, if you ever have a doctor tell you you’re going to be 100 percent, you’re going to get everything back, you need to just (say) thank you very much and leave the office because the reality of it is you’re never going to be pain-free, you’re never going to be 100 percent.”

Walters accepts that now.

She knows she will never be able to run again — it was a “necessary evil” in cross-training she won’t miss. She will miss running with her swimmers, though, racing to stay in the mix with 15- to 18-year-olds. In late October, she officially retired from USA Swimming, accepting that she would never be able to coach for 12 to 14 hours a day again.

But she is getting better, too.

She isn’t able to coach yet, but she has been able to watch some of her senior swimmers compete at a few meets this season. She made it to Saturday’s sectional finals. She underwent a final surgery in January that removed the last of the screws from her pelvis.

That surgery might have set her back a bit, but she is walking again — using just a cane.

“Attitude is everything, trying to see the good in the baby steps,” Walters said. “I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of positive people that are encouraging, and that’s important.”

Early on, the sound of sirens passing would trigger tears, a traumatic aftereffect of the accident. But that fear has lessened.

Walters has been back to the scene of the accident a few times. The dark skid marks will remain on the country road for a long time, but she plans to outlast them.

“Sometimes it does bother me,” Walters said of returning to the scene. “And other times, I just look at those and say, ‘Life is just different now.’ And honestly, I believe it’s going to be different in a good way.”

She and the young woman who hit her have been in contact, but have not met face-to-face. She hopes that can happen soon.

She wants the woman to know she isn’t angry, that she has forgiven her.

Walters’ keeps a mountain bike propped against a wall in her home. She leaves it there partly as a reminder of what she almost lost, but also for inspiration, like the motivational posters that decorate her walls. She is determined to ride again.

And should the day come when Walters sets out on another ride, she hopes the birds are singing.

Follow IndyStar reporter Jordan J. Wilson on Twitter: @Wilsonable07.

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