As published in ESPN Insider
By Lindsay Schnell
Rachel Hollivay can’t remember much from the car accident that almost killed her.
She remembers the before and the after, but the in between is dark. And that’s probably a good thing because the details of the accident are so horrific, having to hear it is bad enough.
Almost a year ago, on Sept. 18, 2009, Hollivay, a 6-foot-4 post from Columbus, Miss., who had such a good summer she was elevated to the No. 3 prospect in the 2012 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, was driving too fast, too late on a rainy night with one of her best friends, Sabrina Harris. Hollivay careened her Toyota Camry around a curve at almost 50 miles an hour and hit a puddle. She hit the brake, which sent the car into a dizzying spin as it hydroplaned across traffic. Hollivay blacked out as the car flipped four times. Windows shattered and a wheel went flying off.
When she came to, Hollivay looked up just in time to watch the car smash into a tree, and hydroplane across traffic again. She opened her eyes and found herself flat on her back, her seat broken and glass all around her. The driver’s side window, sunroof and windshield had all broken on top of her, leaving bits of glass ingrained in her arms, legs and face. Hysterical, Hollivay called her mom, Larina.
“The worst call a mother can get,” Larina recalled.
Larina and her husband, Raymond Sr., rushed to the scene. Rachel already was gone, taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
“When I saw the car, I just went to pieces,” Larina said. “We didn’t know anything; all we knew was that she had an accident and she was gone. We didn’t know if she was hurt, how bad it was or anything. Then to get there, and see the ambulance and car &”
Her voice trails off.
“I would never want any parent to have to go through that.”
Later, police told the Hollivays that had the car not hit a tree, Rachel and Harris would have wound up in the lake. Harris, someone Rachel calls “a sister” because they are so close, sustained only minor injuries even though she wasn’t wearing her seat belt. The car was totaled.
In the hospital, Rachel was confused when doctors asked her what happened to her left eye. She could see fine, she said, and what were they talking about?
Vaguely aware that her face was covered in blood, Rachel reached up to touch her eye. When she pulled her hand away and saw blood, Rachel realized for the first time that she couldn’t see from her left eye. She dropped to the ground and started to sob.
An Athlete Becomes a Player
In sports, athletes are taught that having a short memory is a necessity to success. Don’t worry or think about your last failure, coaches say. It’s all about the next play.
Opponents of Hollivay have to be especially good at forgetting. Odds are, if a guard made her way into the lane or a post player caught the ball on the block, Hollivay took a swat at them, and might have connected. She has the ability to reject shots into the bleachers, causing the crowd to “oooh” and “ahhh” and causing opponents to hang their heads. At the very least, she makes offenses think twice before bringing the ball in the key.
An agile 6-4 with good hops, Hollivay was, until this spring and summer, known more for her athleticism than basketball skill. Her club coach, Kimberly Davis-Powell of Essence, said she used to have to “con” Hollivay into learning new things.
“Before, she was just a great athlete,” Davis-Powell said. “I told her afterward, ‘Now we’re gonna have you be a power player. As opposed to being finesse and kinda tossing it up there, now you’re gonna have to work on everything.’ ”
A fixture in Hollivay’s life, Davis-Powell got a call from Larina early the morning after the accident. Larina’s message was simple: Rachel was in an accident, she’s lucky to be alive and she might have lost her eye. Start praying.
“Accidents can be bad; they can be devastating,” Davis-Powell said. “They basically told me she shouldn’t be alive. But I thought, ‘We can deal with the eye.’ As long as she wasn’t dead and gone, we would be okay.”
By the time the Hollivays reached Davis-Powell, Rachel already had gone through her first surgery.
At first, it was unclear how much damage had been done to the eye. Doctors were able to get out most of the glass, including a piece that was lodged directly in her pupil. They said her cornea was “filleted” though, and would need to be looked at by a specialist.
Less than a week later Rachel had another surgery, this one to replace her cornea; the specialist was amazed to find that no damage had been done to her retina. Rachel afterward needed 32 stitches, which started to dissolve after three months. In the meantime, she would have to walk around with an eye patch.
And basketball? Forget about it, said the doctor. No sports for at least two months.
A Loss of Vision
But Rachel Hollivay has never been one to just take orders. She started to sneak away some nights, she says, shooting short jumpers and working on her dribbling.
Hollivay was conscious of not letting any sweat drip in her eye, though, an action doctors said could cause her to go permanently blind. When she was cleared to play, Hollivay promised to wear protective goggles all at times. As it stands, she has 70/20 vision in her left eye, and 20/20 vision in her right. She will probably never get back to 100 percent vision in her left eye, though doctors estimate she could get as high as 90. Right now, Hollivay says she believes she’s at 65 percent.
Her depth perception is a different story. It’s hard to gauge how off her depth perception is, but Hollivay said blocking shots can be tricky.
“Sometimes it’s close enough that I can block it clean, and sometimes it looks like I’m gonna block it clean out of their hands and I miss the whole person,” Hollivay laughed.
The best news might be that now, she usually doesn’t see in triple.
A Positive Re-development
After missing the first four games of her high-school season, Hollivay returned in December to lead Caledonia High School to its first district championship in 18 years. In March she rejoined Essence at practice, where she shied away from telling anyone what was wrong.
Because her body is still adjusting to the new cornea, the muscles around Hollivay’s eye sometimes tire, causing the eye to turn involuntarily.
“Sometimes I’m cross-eyed,” she sighed. “And I can’t stop it.”
But her play this spring and summer has noticeably improved, regardless of where she’s looking. Hollivay has readjusted to being on the floor but is still learning how to shoot quicker off her left shoulder; sometimes she struggles to react quickly because she can’t always see the ball until it’s right in front of her. Davis-Powell and the Essence coaches decided to try a new tactic with Hollivay, where they ask that she “take a peek” at the rim every time she repositions herself in the paint.
“The biggest thing for her at the Boo Williams tournament in Virginia was she kept saying, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see,’ ” Davis-Powell said. “I told her, ‘So what? Tamika Catchings can’t hear. We’re gonna have to get over it, and we’re gonna do this.’ ”
Davis-Powell said she thinks Hollivay’s game is more controlled now, and better for it.
“I think the accident helped her development,” the Essence coach said. “She committed herself to learning new things and she re-dedicated herself. Sometimes you’ve gotta go through some things to get what you really want, and Rachel did that.”
In North Augusta, S.C., at Nike Nationals, Hollivay’s defense was pivotal in wins over Boo and the Gauchos, and her offense is starting to come more consistently. She hit a game-winning turnaround jumper against Boo, pushing Essence into the semifinals. Considering she is only a 2012 prospect, Davis-Powell says Hollivay could be “unreal” when you consider how well she moves her body for her size.
Hollivay says that at no point did she considering quitting basketball or giving up. It was frustrating, of course, to sometimes see three baskets or three balls — shooting free throws still takes time, because her eyes have to adjust — but throwing in the towel was never an option.
“Just like when Candace Parker had her baby, she didn’t just have her baby and then quit,” Hollivay said. “I couldn’t quit either.”
And should she have moments when she goes back to seeing three baskets, Hollivay now has a game plan.
Aim for the middle one.
Courtesy of the Doctors at Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care; Optometrists, Ophthalmologists and Opticians working together to help you see better. Serving the Rockville, Potomac and Gaithersburg Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC for over 40 years. For more information visit youreyesite.com or call (301) 670-1212
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