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Mark Story: After losing leg in car accident, college volleyball player back on the court

Courtney Baker practiced with Asbury University's volleyball team on Sept. 11, less than a year after losing her left leg in an auto accident as she was headed home for Christmas break.
Courtney Baker practiced with Asbury University's volleyball team on Sept. 11, less than a year after losing her left leg in an auto accident as she was headed home for Christmas break. Lexington Herald-Leader

WILMORE — Before Courtney Baker played the first volleyball game of her sophomore year for Asbury University, she said she did not feel nervous. That seems surprising since the Asbury junior varsity team's meeting with Bethel on Aug. 29 came some eight months after her lower left leg was amputated.

On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2012, Baker, from Christian County, and her Asbury volleyball teammate Sarah Sterling, from Owensboro, had decided to drive home together to Western Kentucky for the Christmas break in a two-car pack.

The night before, Baker had stayed up into the wee hours studying for a math final exam. She had gotten up early in the morning to study even more.

On the Bluegrass Parkway, just past Bardstown, Sterling was on her cell phone talking to her mom. In her rear-view mirror, she noticed her friend's car taking an alarming turn.

Baker's light blue 2006 Mustang veered dramatically to the left. It dipped into the grass median, then went airborne. The Ford landed hard and spun through the eastbound lanes before crashing head-on into a guardrail.

Courtney does not remember falling asleep at the wheel. She has no memory of wrecking. "I remember waking up (in the car) and looking down at my leg," she said. "I thought to myself, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't have a leg.'"

When Sterling got to the driver's side of Courtney's car, she looked down — and regretted it. "It was like (Courtney's left leg) went through a meat grinder," she said.

At work in Christian County, Laura Baker got the phone call every parent fears. It was the Nelson County sheriff's department. "He said, 'Your daughter's been in a car crash,'" Laura said. "'She's being airlifted to a hospital in Louisville. How quick can you get there?'"

As Laura and Greg Baker raced east to be with their daughter, Courtney called them from the University of Louisville Hospital. She told them the doctors were asking her to sign a consent form authorizing the amputation of what was left of her lower left leg.

Even then, volleyball was on Courtney's mind. "The second thing she said was 'Dad, I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to play volleyball,'" Greg Baker said.

The wreck had also left Courtney with a broken femur (thigh bone) in her left leg and fractured discs in her back. She had lost a lot of blood. Yet her lower left leg was the most severe issue.

For the family of a college freshman, an athlete, agreeing to amputate seemed unthinkable. "We just told them if there was a 1 percent chance to save that foot, we wanted to take that chance," Laura Baker said.

Over the next seven days, Courtney underwent three surgeries to try to save her left leg.

Following the third, the pain became unbearable.

"That's when I decided that if I ever wanted to have the quality of life that I had (before) ... it would be best if I just amputated my leg," she said.

On Dec. 20, Dr. John T. Riehl of the University of Louisville Hospital amputated Courtney Baker's left leg just below the knee.

From the time she was tiny, her parents say Courtney has been stubborn. "When she was little, you could not get her to take a nap," Laura Baker said. "She just would not do it, was defiant."

Growing up in the tiny burg of Crofton (population: 762) with two brothers — Courtney's twin, Clayton, is a sophomore at Murray State; her younger sibling, Tate, is a senior offensive lineman at Christian County — sharpened her competitive impulses. "She could beat both her brothers in basketball," Laura Baker said.

By middle school, Courtney was a cheerleader. Rick Erickson, then a youth volleyball coach and now the Christian County High School head man, saw a volleyball player behind the pompons. "There was something about the way she carried herself," he said. "She was athletic, and there was a level of competitiveness about her that you don't see in many girls."

At Erickson's urging, Courtney took up volleyball in eighth grade. He said she made a full commitment to the sport during her sophomore season. That year, Greg Baker and Courtney set an ambitious series of goals for her — an individual goal (make all-district); a team goal (win the district); and a "stretch goal" (make all-region).

By her senior year, Courtney was a volleyball standout at Christian County, an all-region performer. Widely recruited at the small-college level, she started the 2012 season on the Asbury junior varsity. By last year's end, the 5-foot-9 middle blocker was playing with the school's varsity.

On Valentine's Day 2013, Courtney got her first prosthetic leg. "Instead of having a man, I got a new leg," she said.

By that time, Courtney and her dad had long since come up with a new list of goals.

Taylor Swift was to perform a concert in Rupp Arena on April 27. Courtney wanted to be able to walk into Rupp for the show.

The Asbury volleyball team planned to take a summer mission trip to Puerto Rico. Courtney wanted not only to go, but be able to participate in the same activities as her teammates.

Her third goal was to be back playing college volleyball this fall.

There was a "stretch goal," too — for Courtney to make it back to playing varsity volleyball at Asbury.

Of all sports, few are more daunting to contemplate playing on a prosthetic leg than volleyball. It's a game that demands quick, repetitive leaping as well as rapid movements from side to side and forward and back.

One day last March, Asbury head volleyball coach JP Rader got a phone call from a man he did not know.

At the recommendation of a friend, the Baker family had contacted a non-profit organization in Nashville, the Amputee Blade Runners. The group is dedicated to helping those who have lost legs get "running prosthetics" — think of the "blades" worn by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius in the 2012 London Olympics — so they can retain the option of a physically active lifestyle.

Courtney told the cofounder of the Blade Runners, Aaron Fitsimmons, that merely being able to run again was not enough, and that she wanted to play college volleyball.

Once convinced Courtney was all-in on doing the work to make that happen, the organization was willing to provide her a "running blade" (which can cost up to $15,000). Fitsimmons promised to draw up a physical rehabilitation and training program designed to get Courtney back to her sport.

First, however, he wanted assurance that Asbury was on board. "(Fitsimmons) called me," said Rader, "... and he said, 'Are you serious about this? Because I'm not going to this trouble if you are not serious about letting her do this.'"

In that moment, Rader said it was clear to him how much Courtney was willing to invest in trying to return. He told Fitsimmons that Asbury volleyball would give her that chance.

During the 2013 spring semester, Courtney was not in school, staying with her parents to heal. From Christian County, she could drive to Nashville two or three days a week to train.

Courtney had to get "the feel" for the blade, how to balance on it. Since she no longer had a left foot or calf, she had to learn to use different muscles in her hip and upper thigh to jump.

"She basically is having to retrain and recalibrate her body, get her muscles to respond in a different way," Fitsimmons said.

Losing most of a leg would cause many to question their religious belief. Courtney says it has made hers deeper. In the hospital, she adopted Proverbs 3:5 as her guide: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding."

Since the accident, her life is more complicated. "It's just not rolling out of bed, it's having to go and put your leg on," she said. "I can't just slide a pair of pants on. I have to sit down and work it up my leg. It's the 'new normal.'"

Yet one by one, Courtney has checked goals off that list she made with her dad before she left the hospital.

On April 27, Courtney walked into Rupp Arena to see Taylor Swift's Red Tour.

When the Asbury volleyball team went to Puerto Rico this summer, Courtney not only made the trip, she even dove into the ocean with her prosthetic leg on (her "walking leg," not the blade).

Then on Aug. 29, the Asbury junior varsity faced Bethel in its season opener. According to Asbury, the NAIA left it up to the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to rule on whether a player with a prosthetic leg was eligible to compete. KIAC Commissioner Bill Melton deliberated and said yes.

Some eight months after losing her lower left leg, playing on a prosthetic blade held in place with an electric vacuum pump, Courtney Baker competed in a college volleyball match (which the Asbury JV won two sets to none).

Her just playing volleyball at all is a remarkable achievement — amazing, really. This is a rare sports story where use of the word courageous would be wholly appropriate.

Thing is, though, Courtney is not playing volleyball on a prosthetic leg to be a symbol. She is trying to regain the form that allowed her to move up to the Asbury varsity last season. "I don't want to be an 'honorary volleyball player,'" she said.

For years, Greg Baker has provided his daughter a post-game critique. After that first match against the Bethel JV, Courtney came off the court and asked her dad how she'd played.

"I got caught up in the emotion and was telling her how proud I was of her," Greg said. "She stopped me. She said, 'Dad, how did I play? What do I need to work on?'"

The bottom part of her left leg may be gone, but Courtney Baker is fighting to make her "new normal" as close as to her "old normal" as is humanly possible.

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