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Christendom student journeys from near death to Athlete of the Year

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Mary Margaret Heisler’s story is no ordinary one. It is full of tragedy, heroism, dedication, prayer and miracles.

This is her amazing story.

Since childhood, Heisler had a love for athletics, particularly basketball. Her older siblings and parents were athletic, and from her earliest recollections, she loved playing sports. On her 11th birthday, she received a new bike from her parents and a helmet from her older brother, diocesan seminarian John Paul Heisler. About a week later, on the eve of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Heisler and her siblings went for a ride on an infrequently traveled road close to their home. The three siblings stayed close to each other so they could pray the rosary along the way.

What happened next was something no one expected.

As they were going over a hill on the road, a car came around the corner. Mary Margaret tried to stop, but her bike skidded, and she was thrown into the middle of the road, right into the path of the approaching car. 

“I remember screaming as I felt the heat of the car and looked up to see the car’s pipes as it ran over me,” recalls Heisler. “My older brother was there in an instant. He began praying and told me everything would be okay. The new helmet, which he had bought me less than 10 days before, had been cracked in half. When the ambulance arrived, they put me on a stretcher and said that the helicopter was on its way. I had received four bone-deep cuts in my left shin and behind my left quad, trauma to my left eye, and many other lacerations around my body. Warren Memorial Hospital determined I still had feeling in my legs but wasn’t sure about the overall state of nerves, muscles and tendons.”

Heisler was later taken to Fairfax Hospital, where she underwent surgery and recovery for 10 days. It quickly became clear that there was no feeling in her left foot and that she was unable to move it, resulting in her spending five months in a wheelchair before graduating to a walker and then crutches. At that point, she started to try to play basketball on one foot with her siblings — just to give her something to do — but doctors were less than optimistic about her nerve recovery. 

She began seeing pediatric surgeons at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia later, and in 2010, a tendon transfer surgery was done on her left foot. At home, she continued to play sports with her siblings as best she could, hoping the surgery would have an effect eventually. After a few months, it was clear the surgery did not help.

“The doctors warned me that if I tried to play sports again, and rolled my ankle, they would have to fuse my ankle bones together,” says Heisler. “They strongly discouraged it, but my dad found a special brace to support my ankle and eliminate the drop foot when I wore it. However, the brace also decreased my mobility and slowed me down. After my freshman year of basketball in high school, my dad told me that maybe it was time to stop playing sports. I almost cried. I think my distress made him realize that if I was going to keep playing sports, I may as well do it in a brace that allowed me to move.” 

Heisler continued to play basketball, using smaller and smaller braces to eliminate the drop foot and that enabled her to move better. She refused to give up on what she loved, and her supportive family was there every step of the way.

As with her siblings before her, Heisler enrolled as a freshman at Christendom College in Front Royal, where she tried out for the varsity basketball team and made it. But volleyball coach Joshua Petersen was in need of payers for his team, so he asked Mary Margaret to consider joining. She quickly went from rookie to rock of the team.

“Mary Margaret overcame any adversity in her life because she just didn't think about or let it get her down or hold her back,” said Petersen. “I love coaching Mary Margaret because she is a competitor and a fighter. I remember our first tournament at the beginning of this season — we were losing to the other team pretty bad. We just had no fire in us at that point and I turned to Mary Margaret to voice my frustration. I said, ‘Mary Margaret, we need someone who is going to go out there and fight and want the ball and lead the team.’ She said, ‘Coach, I can do that,’ and she went out there and did exactly that. The girls rallied around her 9 kills and fed off her fire and her confidence. She was a huge part of our success, because she is a really smart player as well as a great competitor.”

At the end of the Lady Crusaders’ fall 2018 volleyball season — their best season in history — as they were competing in the USCAA DII Volleyball National Championship with thousands of people watching via livestream and in person, nobody ever would have guessed that one of the star players had been run over as a child and been confined to a wheelchair. And not just any star player, but the USCAA’s Student-Athlete of the Year. The evening before the finals, Mary Margaret was given this award — a testament to the power of prayer, and her dedication and fortitude. 

An injury like the one Heisler suffered as a child could have stopped anyone for good, not just from sports but from many aspects of life. But, Heisler is not like other people. Her resilience, her faith, and her sheer drive to be better bring her to where she is today: a National Champion runner-up, a Student-Athlete of the Year, and a true Crusader for life.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018