Nearly five months ago Maddie Clark was forced to relearn what she called “basic human tasks” — things like taking a shower — while spending almost two months in a wheelchair. Then she had to learn to walk again.
Tough stuff for a “pretty independent” teenager enjoying her final months as a high school student at Omaha Marian. On the night of Sept. 24, 2020, Clark temporarily had her independence taken away by a car accident on State Street in northwest Omaha.
Clark was driving home from swimming practice when another vehicle crossed the center line on the two-lane road near Bennington — just 1 mile from Clark’s home — and hit Clark’s car head on.
“I didn’t know if I was going to go right and into the ditch or slam on the brakes,” Clark said. “I didn’t have time to decipher which option was best. I slammed on my brakes, then I was in and out of consciousness.”
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Fast forward to Dec. 19 and the pool at Common Ground Community Center in Elkhorn. There’s Clark, on the blocks, ready to dive into the water for her first race in nearly three months.
Crusaders coach B.J. Christiansen said Clark had the option to start that 50-yard freestyle in the water instead of from the blocks.
A fierce competitor who hopes to attend the U.S. Military Academy in the fall, Clark didn’t want any special treatment. She dived in and finished with a secondary qualifying time for the state high school championship meet.
Less than a month later, Clark secured her first automatic state meet time in the 100 backstroke, the event in which she is seeded No. 2 for Friday’s prelims at the 48th girls state meet at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.
Soon Clark had two more automatic cuts — she’s seeded 15th in the 100 butterfly — then she swam the maximum four events for the first time Jan. 16 at Lincoln Southwest. Clark was finding her form faster than she thought.
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A driver following Clark came to her aid and asked her for her mother’s phone number. She called, and Jennifer and Andrew Clark were on the scene in less than five minutes.
Police and fire and rescue teams removed Clark from the mangled Toyota Camry, and soon she was headed by ambulance to Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy.
“It (the car) was pretty smashed,” Clark said. “The only part that wasn’t was my seats. I was wrapped up in the air bag and they had to use the claws to get me out.”
The injury list was long.
Several fractures to her pelvis. A couple of fractures to her sternum. A collapsed lung. Facial fractures.
What she found out over the next few days was astonishing to Clark. None of her injuries required surgery. She was in the hospital for a week and a half, then went to a rehabilitation facility to relearn basic motor skills.
Clark needed a wheelchair to get around school — no walking allowed while the injuries healed.
“Maddie seemed in good spirits when I first talked to her after the accident,” said Christiansen, her coach. “She was in pain, but she was focused on getting caught up on school work. She was driven right away.”
When Clark went back to classes at Marian, the first day was “kind of weird.” No one had seen her in a wheelchair.
“People were staring at me, they felt like they had to move for you,” Clark said. “I didn’t want everyone to grab things for me. I’m pretty independent. So it was strange for me when someone had to get me a tissue.”
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While her first competition was in December, Clark’s first venture into the water came during the first week of practice for the high school season.
That was Nov. 18 at the College of St. Mary, where Tom Beck, the Omaha Creighton Prep and GOAL swimming club coach, was conducting a practice. Clark swims for GOAL during the club season; she was coming home from a club practice when the accident happened in September.
Once Clark arrived at St. Mary, she went down the stairs and got to the pool. What happened next was a surprise to Beck.
Clark took to the water.
“I don’t think he thought I was going to get in right away,” Clark said. “I think he was even surprised I was walking because the last time he saw me I was in the hospital.”
Clark began to swim, but she wasn’t pushing off the walls. She would get to the other end, turn around and return to the other end from a dead start. Still, Beck was speechless.
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Another activity that kept Clark busy in the hospital was requesting letters of recommendation from U.S. Senators Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, as well as 2nd District congressman Don Bacon, for her appointment to West Point.
If accepted, Clark may have to wait a year to begin school, but she’s determined to get in the 2021 cadet class to begin her military career and join the Black Knights swimming team.
“Because of the accident I’m waiting to be medically qualified,” Clark said. “I might have to take a gap year, but hopefully all goes well. I will know by the end of April. I would take some classes here, practice with GOAL or by myself until next year.”
For now, helping Marian win another state swimming team championship is Clark’s focus. In addition to the butterfly and backstroke, Clark will swim a leg on two of the Crusaders’ relay teams.
“Just from what I’ve heard from doctors, the extent of time in hospital, from the beginning, if any athlete was going to do it, it would be Maddie,” Christensen said. “She works hard, she has the patience for the long-term goal, and she isn’t going to cut corners or force things.”