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Athlete Rebounds 1 Year After Crash

With surgeries behind her, Nayely Jimenez, the victim of a drunk driver, returns to the basketball court at Moorpark College.

October 16, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Already, everything is so much harder for Nayely Jimenez this basketball season. Wind sprints leave her uncharacteristically winded and the three-man weave wears her out like never before.

But on Wednesday there was nowhere the 19-year-old would have rather been than in the cavernous gymnasium at Moorpark College, sweat soaking her blue jersey and dripping off her hair, her body absorbing the pain that always comes on the opening day of basketball practice.

Because to hurt this badly means she is alive. And for that she cannot be more grateful.

On the eve of the team's first official practice a year ago, the pony-tailed shooting guard was driving to her parents' home in Pacoima to pick up her basketball uniform when a drunk driver blew through a red light and slammed into her compact car.

Jimenez suffered a fractured jaw, head trauma and a host of other injuries in the Oct. 14 crash and endured a series of surgeries to repair her broken body.

She was laid up in the hospital for more than two weeks and spent several painful months recuperating and rehabilitating, working with physical therapists to regain strength and balance.

She still is not all the way back. But encircled by teammates and coaches Wednesday at the east Ventura County campus, she felt that she could at least see the end of a long, grueling journey toward recovery.

"I just wanted to get better," Jimenez said of the past year, filled with a rigorous regimen of rehabilitation just to do even the simplest of tasks. "I just wanted to get back to my life and I did whatever it took to do that."

She had plenty of help along the way. The Moorpark College community rallied around her, conducting a fund-raising effort that would generate $8,000 to help pay expenses and aid in her recovery.

Staff and faculty members at all three of Ventura County's community colleges donated thousands of dollars in response to mass e-mails asking for help. Students, parents and others chipped in too, buying tickets for a drawing held at halftime of the Lady Rangers' first home basketball game in mid-November.

Thousand Oaks chiropractor Jim Sandberg read about Jimenez's plight in the newspaper and volunteered use of his medical group's rehabilitation center.

"She had a real strong attitude and that's so important," Sandberg said. "There was none of this, 'Poor me, I can't make it back.' She showed up and asked what she needed to do. I wish all of my patients were like that."

The most constant source of support came from Jimenez's basketball coaches and teammates, a group that canceled the opening day of practice last year to visit her in a Mission Hills hospital, where she lay banged up and unconscious.

"Probably the only doubt I had in my mind [about Jimenez's comeback] was when I saw her in the hospital that day," said Sherry Ruter, Moorpark's head coach.

"But she has come back with a mission," Ruter said. "She has had to work hard, nothing has come easy for her. But she has never let anything get in her way."

The team dedicated last season to Jimenez and started this season by forming a circle around her, presenting a card and tiny teddy bear to officially welcome her back to the squad.

"We're so proud of her, working as hard as she has to come back," said sophomore standout Catie Goldblatt. "She's ready to go. She is so ready to go."

Jimenez knows she has come a long way but that she still has a way to go.

She said she doesn't really remember the accident that nearly ended her life but is reminded of it every day when her body fails to do all of the things she tells it to. She got another reminder not long ago when the Department of Corrections sent a letter to tell her that the drunk driver who blind-sided her had been slapped with a 10-year prison sentence.

But she doesn't dwell on what went wrong. She is too busy trying to set it all right.

"I really want to play, that is what has kept me going," she said. "Sometimes, there is a little doubt. But I just shrug it off and keep on going."

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