Like a goaltender focused only on stopping the next shot, Marah Sobczak doesn’t dwell on the past — which is not easy when you consider the challenges she has overcome in the past 14 months.
The 2010 Stillwater Area High School graduate was involved in a devastating head-on collision on Aug. 28, 2012, which resulted in countless surgeries and nearly led to the amputation of a leg. Initially unsure whether she would be able to walk again, Sobczak has skated past those expectations while returning to the crease earlier this month for the Gustavus Adolphus women’s hockey team.
It was an emotional return to the ice for Sobczak, who made seven saves while playing the second period of an 8-2 season-opening victory over St. Mary’s on Nov. 2.
“I felt great, a little nervous being my first game in over a year, but it felt great to be on the ice and skating with my teammates,” Sobczak said. “I knew it was possible to be eventually playing again, but I didn’t expect it to be this soon or even playing at Gustavus. Everything just fell into place and my recovery went well and I couldn’t be happier than where I am now.”
Sobczak has made one start and played in three games with a 1.38 goals against average this season for the Gusties (4-0-0 MIAC, 5-1-0), who are No. 5 in the USCHO.com Division III national rankings.
“The people who have been closest knew that I couldn’t stay away from the sport for too long,” Sobczak said. “I was definitely nervous when I first got out there, but once I made that first save it just fell into place. I had a lot of fun and I think it went very well.”
It was a scene few could have imagined during the early stages of her recovery.
“As I got home I was pretty much a quadriplegic,” Sobczak said. “I couldn’t use either hands or both of my legs and was in a wheelchair for quite a while.”
The comeback is remarkable even for someone who has witnessed more than a few.
Mike Ripley of OSI Physical Therapy has been working with patients like Sobczak for 34 years and he has been surprised by the rapid recovery and progression — a far cry from when he and Sobczak’s mother, Robin, needed to lift her out of the wheelchair to begin rehabilitation sessions.
“I’m not surprised in its completeness, because I know people can get back from these,” Ripley said. “I’ve been around long enough to know what can be accomplished having the right attitude and effort, but what surprised me is the speed at which she did it. Any time there have been similar injuries with athletes it’s usually 18 months, not eight. Obviously she
was extremely de-conditioned. She could tolerate very little of anything and I couldn’t push her very hard. She had had surgeries in the teens and had an immeasurable amount of pain, but she came in with a great attitude and she pushed hard. It seemed like every challenge I gave her she was looking forward to the next one. She would be like, ‘OK old guy, you haven’t broken me yet’. She did it far faster than I ever expected her to.
“It just says so much about her individual character,” Ripley added. “You’d want her in your fox hole if you’re in the military.”
Sobczak was a key contributor for Stillwater’s state championship teams in 2007 and 2009 and head coach Tony Scheid was among those marveling, but not surprised, at her comeback and return to the ice.
“Marah has so much fortitude and so much determination that nothing really surprises me with her,” Scheid said. “It is amazing the comeback she has made and coming out on the ice after nearly losing her leg. It was exciting and we were really excited to hear the news that she will play. It was really amazing, but not surprising at all.”
Returning to normal daily activities was the primary goal, but Sobczak never imagined a future without hockey in some capacity.
“My family is a huge hockey family and we have the Center Ice Package,” she said. “I watched hockey every night at home when couch-bound.”
Even after returning to Gustavus in the fall, it was uncertain whether she would be able to rejoin the hockey program, which is a perennial national contender.
“When I skated at captains practice it was the first time with full gear since the accident,” Sobczak said. “I just realized I could possibly do this and play hockey again. I probably skated about five times before tryouts.”
Academics also remain a top priority for Sobczak, who received the prestigious Elite 89 Award while sporting a 3.858 grade point average in physics while the Gusties were competing in the NCAA Championships in 2012. She eventually plans to pursue civil engineering at the University of Minnesota.
In fact, classes at Gustavus hadn’t started yet when the accident occurred, but that was one of her first concerns after becoming more cognizant of what she had experienced.
“Once they removed her breathing tube she had trouble talking, but she made the comment that she didn’t know if she’d ever play hockey again, but she wanted to make sure we got her a computer so she could start on her school work,” Robin said.
Even with the extended recovery, Sobczak only fell one semester behind on the path to graduation.
“For the first six to eight months you’re just so numb and you’re in it. There was no sense of emotion except for exhaustion,” Robin said. “Everything was always positive with Marah. We talked about positive things we were going to do and never said, no, we’re not going to do something.”
The other driver in the crash has a long criminal history and is facing charges in the accident, which also impacted Sobczak’s younger sister Kalley, who was in the passenger seat and required several surgeries after sustaining less serious injuries than Marah. The sisters were each wearing their seat belt when the other vehicle veered into the oncoming lane and their car, according to state patrol reports.
Sobczak’s leg was essentially wrapped around the engine and emergency responders spent nearly an hour trying to extract her from the car. It was an open fracture and doctors eventually removed a three-inch piece of her tibia.
“To see what her leg looked like, there was no top of her leg,” Robin said. “I found out a couple days after the accident they were going to cut her leg off to get her out of the car. There was no way to get her out of the car and it was just a couple minutes shy of an hour.”
The support poured in from the St. Croix Valley and beyond over those critical next few days — and beyond.
“All our friends and family, the support has been amazing,” Robin said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of her hockey family at SAHS, Gustavus, the whole community. The support they gave our family gave us the support to truck through all of this. We never once walked alone in this whole situation.”
The one thing lacking from the sisters’ recovery has been any signs of bitterness or self-pity.
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget what happened. I don’t have a lot of vivid memories,” Sobczak said. “I remember more of the recovery process and being out of the hospital. You look at life differently and try not to take things for granted. It has definitely changed my outlook on life and the way things have gone since then.”
Nor have they uttered a ‘why me?’
“I think Kalley and I are fortunate to be fully recovered so that changes how we look at things. I’ve never really asked that question,” Sobczak said. “Things just happen the way they happen and we have to learn to deal with them and move on in life. Kalley and I did a good job of moving on. Immediately afterward there was definitely those thoughts and things are really emotional, especially when we didn’t know where we’d be. But now, and even when we started the recovery process and started noticing the results, we kind of took it for what it was and tried to grow from the experience.”
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com