s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

"Molly! Molly! Hold on!"

Through a fog in her head, Molly McKenna heard the cries of her friends in the boat. But she was stunned, floating in water red with her own blood, and her only thought was her life was about to end.

At 18.

"Molly! Molly! Hold on!"

And then the cloudless blue sky above her faded to black.

These days, the Santa Rosa resident still vividly recalls the voices calling her name almost nine years ago, the day she wasn't supposed to survive. It's in the back of her mind with every workout she sweats and grunts through at the gym. It's in each step she takes.

And she's grateful for every one.

It was August 2005 and McKenna was near Discovery Bay in the Sacramento River Delta, wakeboarding with high school pals Matt Triassi and Alissa DeFreitas. DeFreitas and McKenna were the best of friends and this was their last weekend together before heading off for college, parting for the first time since they met in middle school in Pleasanton. Molly was enrolled in junior college in San Diego and had just that week put a deposit on an apartment there. Her first place away from home.

The tall, athletic blonde with a bright smile, a tight-knit family and an ex-San Francisco police sergeant for a father, wasn't just starting her future, she was sprinting ahead at full speed.

And then in a moment, she was suddenly fighting with every fiber of her being to hold on to the present.

"Molly! Molly! Hold on!"

Everybody remembers it as a great day, perfect. The start of something big. It was the last run of the day.

But as McKenna waited in the water for her friends to bring the boat around, another boat was heading her way. It was going too fast and the 25-year-old driver didn't see her in the water.

He ran over McKenna, the props of his motor cutting up her torso and right leg and nicking her femoral artery.

It was a catastrophic accident. They were in the middle of a popular channel, at least two miles from the dock and 40 from the nearest trauma hospital. By all rights, McKenna should not have survived.

But the worst day of her life also contained flashes of good fortune. The propeller missed cutting open the femoral artery, which would have caused her to bleed to death. Two of the people in the boat that hit her were paramedics and they knew exactly where to put pressure on her wounds, to tie off that critical artery.

In her boat, DeFreitas called 911, and Matt, who had tragically lost a friend in a boating accident the previous summer, jumped into the blood-filled water, yelling "Not again! Not again!"

"She was lying in the water and the look in her eyes was distant, like she wasn't even there," said DeFreitas, an elementary school teacher in Pleasanton. "My first thought was I was going to lose my best friend."

"Molly! Molly! Hold on!"

Emergency dispatch told DeFreitas to get McKenna to the nearest dock where a helicopter would meet them. Before getting her out of the water, they had to get her wakeboard off. It was a process made almost impossible by her injuries.

Meanwhile, DeFreitas said her friend was drifting in and out of consciousness, crying out in pain. But as those precious minutes unfolded, it was McKenna herself who demonstrated a kind of courage her friends and family will never forget.

As the realization about what had just happened to her set in, she stared at the bloody mess of bone and muscle, and for the first time since she was struck, felt pain. Deep, searing, impossible pain. And she knew.

"I'm going to live," she said. "I'm going to make it."

McKenna was airlifted by helicopter to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek where she was in such bad shape, her father, the veteran police sergeant who had seen everything, was in shock.

"That was my child's blood all over the floor," Joe McKenna said. "When we got to the hospital, I thought it was over."

"Molly! Molly! Hold on!"

The 3,000-pound ski boat was going 30 mph when it struck McKenna. The impact fractured her pelvis, broke her femur in six places and caused compound fractures in the tibia and fibula in both legs. It tore or destroyed muscles in her right quad and shin.

That summer night as they gathered at the hospital, family and friends were bracing for the worse — leg amputation possible, lifelong pain likely, life in a wheelchair probable — no matter how they looked at it, the future for McKenna looked impossibly bleak.

"I thought her life was going to be in a wheelchair, living at home," Joe said. "I thought our lives were going to be changed forever. In a bad way but you know what? It didn't turn out like that."

Joe McKenna said the doctors at John Muir saved her life and then her legs, but her fight for survival was only the beginning, In the first month, most of which she was kept in an induced coma, she had 10 surgeries, where doctors implanted 18 screws, three rods and three cables. They used nearly 400 staples to close all her wounds.

"We had to carry her around like a bomb," said her father. "One wrong move, if one of the wounds opened ... she didn't have enough skin left to repair it all as it was."

When she woke up, doctors laid out a road to recovery that was daunting as it was depressing:

She would be in pain for the rest of her life.

She would never walk without a cane.

She wouldn't run or jump or dance.

"She was the girl in high school who always wore these really high high heels when the rest of us were in sweats," said DeFreitas. "She loved fashion and she had like 90,000 shoes — I mean she had a lot. To hear she could never wear them again, that she might not even walk — it was tough on her."

McKenna made peace with letting go of her high heels but not the rest. She got back on her feet, withstood nine more surgeries and an ugly and painful skin graft on her thigh, and got back to living.

Within a year, she was in college, eventually attending and graduating from the Fashion Institute of Design in San Francisco. Still, she couldn't walk far or without help or pain in her nerves and joints.

"This was my new normal," she said. "I was pretty much resigned that I was going to be limited physically for the rest of my life."

Until the day she met a CrossFit trainer named Kelly Starrett. McKenna's mother had heard about this guy who was having success with people with physical disabilities and told her daughter to call him.

"He said he had to meet me," McKenna said. "He was very persuasive, but I admit I still didn't believe what he was telling me."

McKenna said she walked into CrossFit in San Francisco a couple days later and "within five minutes, I knew my life had been changed forever. Again."

It was nearly six years since that day in the Delta when McKenna began a workout program at CrossFit, which offers a high-intensity exercise regimen mixing weightlifting, gymnastics and cardio in varied combinations each day. Her recovery and transformation are so compelling she is being featured in a story on the June 4 episode of the Showtime series "60 Minutes Sports."

"If you saw her before and after, you wouldn't believe it," said DeFreitas. "She dances now. Just like she did the night before the accident."

McKenna said she was walking and, remarkably, mostly pain-free within six weeks of starting at CrossFit. Shortly after, she was running — and jumping.

McKenna moved to Santa Rosa last year and has continued working out at the Santa Rosa Strength and Conditioning on Donahue Street. She's a sales rep for clothing company Quiksilver/Roxy Sales. With a partner, she started her own company last fall, an online clothing shop called Whiskey and Lace.

She says doesn't blame the boat driver for her accident and has tried to reach out to talk to him about it but he hasn't responded. No charges were filed in the accident although McKenna's family sued the driver, eventually settling out of court.

"From the very beginning, I couldn't go to that dark place and be the kind of person who could never forgive," she said. "I wanted to move on."

Friends and family said McKenna's attitude has inspired them, especially her refusal to let the tragedy define her life in negative ways. Despite the visible scars on her right leg, they said, she has never shied away from wearing short shorts or bikinis, even when the injuries were new.

"I don't think I ever heard her complain once," said DeFreitas, who said the two friends have become closer than ever.

But friends and family said they remain most in awe that the girl who wasn't supposed to live is dancing again.

"I knew she was tough and I knew she was strong but I had no idea how tough and how strong," her father said. "I'm her father. I'm supposed to say she's amazing, but this kid ..."

He paused, gathering himself. Even now, nearly nine years after the accident, Joe McKenna still tears up about it.

"This kid, this kid she's special," he finally says. "You have no idea."

(You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.)