WESTPORT — The memories of Aug. 28, 2012, still play in Caroline Koenig’s mind.
The car coming. The mirror smacking her right shoulder, the sheer force sending her to the ground. The back tire running over her leg. The road covered in blood. The orange hospital mat.
Fast-forward almost a year later.
It’s an early July evening in Westport and Koenig has just gotten back from a four-mile run. Her cheeks slightly flushed, she sports a 2011 State Cross Country T-shirt, Nike running shorts and a big grin. It was a tough run, but one she needed to do.
“It was hard, but it was fun to be out there,” she said.
The flashbacks of the accident have finally started to subside, but Koenig’s mind still hasn’t allowed her to get past what happened.
“It used to be really bad,” Koenig said. “The first month I would just wake up at least three times a night and just see it happening again, and just see the car coming again. It was really bad.”
For months, the ability to run was taken away from Koenig. Now, with the start of her final high school cross country season at Staples approaching, she’s in the recovery process. Her hope is to come back stronger than ever to the sport she fell in love with nearly four years ago.
“I just want to prove to myself that this accident isn’t going to stop me from running and doing the things I like,” she said. “Just train hard and just be happy and run.”
“It’s a sport where you’re by yourself, and you just push yourself mentally as far as you can.”
Koenig laughs about how much she loves school. Aug. 28 was the first day of her junior year and two Advanced Placement classes filled her schedule. She said Spanish and German are her favorite courses.
“I just remember getting all my textbooks and being really excited. I love going back to school,” she said. “I’m a nerd.”
Along with school came cross country practice. Running had become more than an after-school activity for Koenig, who first moved to the United States with her family six years ago from her hometown of Strasbourg, France. Her parents, Vincent and Isabelle, own a bakery in Fairfield.
She joined the track team during her freshman year. Her mother suggested picking a sport to try. Koenig chose running because she was guaranteed to make the team.
“No one is cut; it won’t be embarrassing,” she remembered thinking. “In the beginning it was really hard, but I just really loved it.”
Koenig made new friends and discovered she was good. Really good. She emerged as one of the top runners, not only at Staples, but in Fairfield County.
As a sophomore, she finished 10th at the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference cross country championships and fifth at the Class LL state meet. She was the top Staples girl runner. During the indoor and outdoor season the 3,200 meter run became her event.
At the end of the 2012 outdoor season she had earned the nickname “Little Tom,” which was given to her by assistant coach Malcolm Watson.
“I was the only girl training with the boys and Malcolm said I needed a boy’s name. So they called me Tom and then added Little to it, because I was little I guess,” she said with a smile.
“It just stayed and I really liked it.”
That summer she spent a majority of her time training. She was setting herself up to have a promising junior year.
“The first thing she said was, ‘My season’s ruined, my season’s ruined.’”
It was 3:57 p.m. and the Staples girls cross country team was off on a five-mile run with coach Amanda Parrish. The course was one of their usual paths, starting at the high school, down North Avenue and then a left on Long Lots. Running in pairs on the left side of the road, going against the traffic to see emerging cars coming, Koenig was in the second row, closer to the street. Parrish recalled a car coming dangerously close to her as she ran with the girls.
“The car just continued flowing in,” Parrish said.
The side mirror struck Koenig’s right shoulder, sending her to the ground. The back right tire ran over her right leg, above the ankle.
“Before anyone was able to scream, I was already hit,” she said.
Koenig suffered compound fractures of both the tibia and fibula.
“She’s looking at her bone sticking out of her leg, and she’s not going, ‘This is disgusting,’ or, ‘What’s going on,’” Parrish said.
“The first thing that came out was, “My season is over, I won’t be able to run again,” Koenig said.
Added Parrish: “I kept saying, ‘It’s going to be OK, it’s going to be OK.’”
The ambulance and police arrived fast — Koenig said the police were only one street over — and Parrish told the other runners to go back and tell head coach Laddie Lawrence what happened.
“I was up by Cross Highway and Bayberry,” Lawrence said. “A mom pulled up and said a runner got hit. So I flew back down to Staples and just shot down to North Avenue. I came upon the girls and they were walking, holding hands, and they were all crying.”
Parrish stayed with Koenig, who was lying on the ground, not moving, but conscious.
Koenig hasn’t forgotten a detail from that day, but the loss of her season hurt the most. Cross country is her sport, with emphasis on “country.”
“I was really scared to disappoint the team and my family,” she said. “Because in France, not a lot of people do sports, so it was really a big thing to do, to show my family that you can actually do it. And I loved it.”
The ambulance arrived to take her to Norwalk Hospital.
“I remember not wanting to move. They brought this hard orange mat, and they had to push me on my side, which was very painful I remember,” she said. “The pressure of being higher was painful. They put me in the ambulance and quickly gave me morphine.”
As they traveled to the hospital, Parrish phoned Koenig’s mom.
“I didn’t believe it was possible,” Isabelle said. “It was a shock.”
Koenig’s mind was one of divided consciousness.
“I was in between two sides,” Koenig said. “‘This is horrible. Amanda, be here.’ And then talking to the guy in the ambulance. I was asking him, ‘What’s your name, do you have kids?’ Engaging in a random conversation.
“In the ambulance, I was always screaming Amanda’s name, making sure she was always there. She was someone I got really close to even though I knew her a few short weeks. She was great.”
“All I would do was watch the clock go.”
Koenig arrived at the hospital at 5 p.m. and went into surgery around 7. Parrish said the initial diagnosis was to amputate Koenig’s leg from the injury site down.
“Then they figured they were going to be able to save her foot, but she may never run again,” Parrish said.
Koenig spent four hours in surgery. A rod was inserted through the knee as well as four screws, two by the ankle and two at the knee.
Parrish left the hospital around 8 p.m. It was a day that still has lingering effects on her.
“I’ve never seen a compound fracture. I was kind of thinking, ‘Oh, this is what we had all this first-aid training for.’ Luckily I remained calm, but later that evening I called my mom crying and spent the night with friends.”
The days immediately following the accident were the worst for Koenig.
“The 29th was a horrible day,” Koenig said. “I just felt the pain the whole way through. I could only get morphine every four hours. So all I would do was watch the clock go, and think.”
On the 30th, Koenig had a second surgery where they inserted a wound VAC to stabilize the bleeding and clean out the wound.
The constant presence of family and friends helped Koenig get through it all. She was the first cross country runner in program’s history, according to Lawrence, to be hit.
“The first few days were rough,” Lawrence said. “For everyone. But once they found out she was going to be OK, she wasn’t going to lose her foot, they came around. They had a pizza party in her room. I’m surprised the hospital let that happen.”
“I just wish I was on the start line running with them.”
After five days spent confined to a hospital bed, Koenig was sent home. What she arrived to was a different life.
It was a full month before she could go back to school. When she finally did, it was only for two hours due to the pain medication she was taking. She transitioned from wheelchair to crutches to one crutch, and then a boot. It wasn’t until early winter, Koenig said, right around December when she started to walk.
“I watched probably every single movie on the planet,” she said.
Her father’s parents flew in from France and spent two months with her right after the accident. Her teammates were also frequent visitors. After her dad’s parents left, her other set of grandparents came and spent a month with her.
She attended practices when she could.
The Wreckers sported lime green T-shirts with the words “Run For Lil’ Tom” on the front. During Staples’ home meet against Trumbull in early September, the Eagles brought Koenig gifts in a show of support. Lawrence said he heard from coaches state-wide asking how they could help.
“Each girl wore blue and white ribbons in their hair. They also purchased one flower each and gave it to Caroline when she arrived, one at a time,” said James McCaffrey, Trumbull’s cross country and outdoor track coach. “As well as giving her a framed picture of the team holding signs encouraging her to get better and letting her know that they were there to support her even though they were competitors.”
While Staples experienced success during both the cross country and indoor seasons, it was difficult for Koenig.
“I remember I was in between — half wheelchair, half crutches — at the time, so I came down on my crutches to see them at the starting line,” Koenig said. “And it’s a big meet, and I just started crying. I let them go so no one would see.”
Added Parrish: “Staples is a really good school and it’s so competitive, and it’s hard enough for kids to find some kind of niche. And then she found this thing where she really stood out. And then to not have that anymore, I think was really hard.”
“She wasn’t motivated to get back to winning.”
At first meeting, Koenig’s personality can be overwhelming. She’s high energy. She’s nice, almost too nice. But that’s also what most likely kept her going throughout the entire process.
“If it was going to happen to somebody…you saw how she reacted to it, how she recovered. I don’t think a lot of people could have done what she did,” Lawrence said. “I’m encouraged by her spirit that she shows. It inspired the rest of the team.”
It’s been a lengthy road back, and one she is still on. She admits it was hard going through physical therapy, watching teammates get better and pass her. She was able to start training with the team by the start of the outdoor season, but she was limited in what she could do. Some days were better than others.
“When she first came back she was limping a lot, her range of motion was so limited,” Parrish said. “She wasn’t able to run with the group she used to train with, and that was really hard for her.”
Koenig said she’s taken on a new appreciation of life and running. Every step she takes has a meaning.
“Being able to walk and have two legs has become very appreciated. Pain now is like nothing.”
“It was probably one of the best days of my life.”
It was April 4, a meet against Trumbull. As Koenig lined up on the Staples track for the start of the 800-meter race, tears started to trickle down her face.
“That was very emotional,” Lawrence said. “I tried to announce something on the mic two or three times…she’s in the second row and she was standing on the track crying, and I was starting to tear up.”
Her mom had the intention of taking photos of her daughter during this celebration of life. When she arrived at the track and saw Caroline, so couldn’t do it.
“Impossible to take her picture,” she said, her voice wavering remembering the day. “It was so wonderful to see Caroline on the track and she her so happy to do it again. She loves to run. She loves to be on the team.”
Koenig finished the race as her mother and teammates waited at the finish line. Her time didn’t matter.
“This didn’t stop me from being who I am,” Koenig said. “I’m back.”
Koenig says her right leg and knee feel stronger now. The rod was taken out during her final surgery this past spring. Following Parrish’s training calendar for the rest of the summer, Koenig said she’s excited for the upcoming cross country season.
She has been on the same road where she was hit. But she says she now passes by with a stronger conviction.
“I always remember the accident every time I go on the road,” Koenig said. “This happened once. And it’s never going to happen again.”