Haley Scott DeMaria visited Neumann University on Monday, October 19 to accept the 5th Annual Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development Award. After surviving a 1992 University of Notre Dame swim team bus crash but being paralyzed from the waist down, Haley defied the odds and the experts as she learned to walk again and compete in the sport she loves.
DeMaria’s selection to receive the 2015 Institute Award stems from the faith and perspective she credits with seeing her through the most difficult hurdles in her life. Dealing with the tragic loss of two teammates and the potential for a lifetime of paralysis, she put trust in God and prayer to see her through multiple difficult surgeries and an emotional recovery process. Haley’s strength of spirit embodies the mission of the Institute Award and beautifully represents the deeper perspective on sports explored at the Institute.
“I realized it was going to take more than the swimmer in me to survive,” Haley explained during her acceptance speech. “This is when [my] spiritual journey took root. I started asking ‘why?’ – Why did I heal? Why did I make it back?”
Years later, she found guidance on those questions. As she received prayers from across the country following the 1992 accident, and her recovery in turn encouraged so many, DeMaria realized that her story needed to be be shared. In that sharing, she has been blessed with the privilege to inspire others, explore the union between sport and faith, and promote the value of prayer.
“Keep praying. God listens, but doesn’t always answer in the way we think He should,” DeMaria explained. Indeed, her own story is a testament to that; though Haley’s mother prayed she would not be cold in the immediate aftermath of the bus crash, it was, in fact, her extended time lying helpless in the snow that prevented excessive swelling and may have saved her spine.
The Institute Award presentation was attended by students, staff, Neumann Board members, Sisters of Saint Francis, and family members of the late Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, in whose honor the Institute Award is given. Later, DeMaria met with a small group of students for an hour-long question and answer session. During that time, she explored subjects ranging from advice on effective care for aspiring nurses, practical lessons for student-athletes seeking to be effective teammates, and the mission of Catholic and Christian colleges in formation of students in mind, body, and spirit.
To cap off the evening, Haley offered a special life skills presentation to more than 300 Neumann student-athletes. During her own recovery process, she credited a strong sense of purpose – specifically, to walk and swim again in honor of the two teammates she lost – with giving her the drive to forge ahead in the face of overwhelming odds. For student-athletes, that lesson translates well. As they spend hours working on their sport while balancing many competing demands, purpose and passion, Haley explained, are key. So, too, is balance and perspective.
“You have to love what you do to give the passion, time, and commitment it deserves,” Haley advised. “And sometimes, when we don’t win, we need a different perspective.”
That perspective, which she gained upon realizing the post-accident physical limitations she would live with (most notably her inability to ever achieve her previous race times), became rooted in the areas of life that matter most. DeMaria advised Neumann community members to always foster faith, family, and friendships, noting that sometimes one of them may falter, but that nurturing all three will offer the strength and resilience for a full life.
“Haley Scott DeMaria’s visit was a tremendous gift to Neumann University. Everyone in attendance was mesmerized by her story of perseverance, courage, and faith” said Institute director Lee DelleMonache. “While Haley’s experience is unique, the lessons learned are transferable to anyone facing a challenge. It was quite moving to see our students approach Haley after her presentations and share how they plan to move forward facing their particular challenges, newly inspired to overcome them.”
DeMaria’s day-long visit to Neumann University was the largest Institute Award celebration in its five-year history. Past recipients of the award include Keith Primeau, former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers; Coaches vs. Cancer of Philadelphia; Olympic gold-medalist Ann Donovan; and the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. Haley’s book, What Though The Odds, is currently in pre-production as a feature film and will be only the third ever filmed at Notre Dame.
More information on Haley’s journey, including links to her book and her blog, is available at www.HaleyBook.com.