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Devastating crash could not dampen Sarah Klein-Malarik's competitive spirit

In the fall of 2001, the Pasco Police Athletic League hatched a plan to make picture day unique. Players would appear on the cover of a fictitious magazine, Football World.

Sarah Klein-Malarik looked straight into the camera, smiling and confident. In one hand, she clutched a football, in the other a silver helmet. Her Shady Hills Raiders jersey number also matched her age — 14.

On the field, she quickly put a halt to any doubt that she could hold her own with a bunch of roughneck boys.

"She would knock you on your butt,'' said her mom, Dawn Smith.

Sarah also played baseball, the only girl on an all-boys team. And at Hudson High School, she lettered in varsity volleyball, competed in weight lifting and, in her free time, coached kids in the Police Athletic League.

That's where she was headed at 5:15 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2004. She left the high school in her hand-me-down Chrysler LeBaron and turned onto Hudson Avenue. She never saw the other car.

A helicopter landed in the football stadium and carried Sarah to a trauma center in St. Petersburg. Her mother, a nursing assistant in Dunedin, arrived about the same time.

"The doctor told me to give her a hug and a kiss and tell her goodbye," Dawn said. "Then he wheeled her down the hall and did brain surgery.''

Every night for the next six weeks, Dawn curled up in a chair beside her comatose daughter. She talked to her, read her stories, prayed. She worried about paying bills and caring for her other daughter Amy, two years younger than Sarah. She knew she would have to quit work to become a full-time caretaker.

"Nobody gave her much chance to get better,'' Dawn said. "They said I was taking home a vegetable. Well, she's hardly a vegetable.''

• • •

Whatever the damage to Sarah's brain, the part that controls competitive spirit remained sound. She could barely move and ate only pureed food. She could make only guttural sounds. But a year after the crash she returned to Hudson High in a special education program. She managed to type essays despite twisted fingers. She made A's in math. And when the Class of 2007 graduated in the same stadium where the helicopter had landed three years earlier to fly her to the hospital, Sarah summoned all her strength and resolve and stood up from her wheelchair to accept her diploma.

Classmates cheered.

Back at the family's cramped home in rural Shady Hills, reality set in. Sarah had accomplished more than anybody thought possible, but she still had severe, life-threatening disabilities. Surgeons installed a pump in her abdomen that injected drugs to control spasticity.

Medicaid paid for Sarah's physical therapy at the All Children's Hospital Specialty Care center in New Port Richey. But after she turned 21, she no longer qualified, her mother said.

Dawn was determined to keep Sarah physically active. When she ducked into the Family Fitness Center in Hudson, she could not have imagined that a little more than two years later, she and Sarah would become an inspiration for a gym full of surrogate grandparents.

Dawn Smith had gone looking for a place where Sarah could exercise a few days a week. In the process, she demonstrated a mother's total, unselfish devotion to duty while beating herself into the best physical condition of her life. Sarah, meanwhile, melted the heart of a rock-hard coach who couldn't get her out of his mind.

• • •

Joe Fabrizio is the senior fitness adviser for Family Fitness Center's four gyms in Pasco and Pinellas counties. He played football at Temple University, coached at a Philadelphia high school and directed fitness programs at the St. Petersburg YMCA. At 72, he remains strong and tall and demanding like a drill sergeant.

The other morning, as Dawn and Sarah teamed up on the floor of a workout room with several much older folks in sweat pants, Fabrizio walked among them and barked orders.

"Knees to your chest! Knees to your chest! Come on, you can do this!''

On a particular gut-tightening exercise, Fabrizio pitted Sarah against Anne Moore, 74, who put up a good fight but quit before Sarah.

"Wait till you get to be my age, honey!'' Moore hollered across the room.

"Good job,'' Fabrizio said to a beaming Sarah, who despite twisted fingers pushed them toward him for a fist bump.

After the class, Fabrizio raved about her.

"When she first came here,'' he said, "she really didn't have muscles. Now look at her. She has come so far.''

Sarah works out five days a week at the fitness center. After the classes, she pulls weights on Life Fitness machines. Dawn supervises every step, reaching, holding and sweating with her daughter. Dawn weighed 142 pounds when they joined the gym; Sarah 147. Now they are 104 and 130, respectively.

Farbrizio and fellow fitness coach Laurie Stidham were so taken with Dawn and Sarah they set out to raise money for them. Dawn had not asked for help and was embarrassed and emotional when the coaches began planning fundraisers. They knew money was tight and that Sarah would soon need an operation to remove a pump in her abdomen.

That was both good and bad news. Sarah has improved so much she no longer needs the pump. But getting it removed means several expensive trips to Tampa for medical consultations.

Sarah also needs about $1,400 worth of dental work. She has eight cavities. Medicaid only paid for the X-rays.

Dawn, 47, has been married 18 years to Mike Smith, 70. The family gets by on his and Sarah's monthly Social Security checks, a total of $3,000. When they recently hired a contractor to build a ramp to the front door for Sarah's wheelchair, Dawn had to pledge her 2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser as collateral. It's halfway to 300,000 miles but she has to keep it running.

"Can you imagine anyone but me wanting that car?'' she asked.

• • •

Despite the challenges, Dawn Smith celebrates her daughter's progress. They watch game shows on TV. Sarah especially likes Match Game. She also enjoys an occasional dirty joke, "although sometimes she's a little slow getting the punch line,'' her mom said. "Of course, so am I.''

Not long ago, a speech therapist told Dawn that Sarah would never talk again. Reminded of that, Sarah raised her arm in the air, opened her mouth wide and proudly and clearly spoke the word that means the most to her: "Ma.''

>>fast facts

Two fundraisers for Sarah

Fundraisers are set to help Sarah Klein-Malarik: 5 to 9 p.m. July 25 at Quaker Steak & Lube Grill, 10400 49th St. N, Clearwater. Aug. 31, the CARES center on Clocktower Parkway in Hudson hosts a spaghetti dinner from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Folks wishing to donate to the family can send checks in Sarah's name, c/o Family Fitness Center, 8846 SR 52, Hudson, FL 34667. (727) 697-0108 or (727) 642-9001.

Devastating crash could not dampen Sarah Klein-Malarik's competitive spirit 07/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 1:28pm]

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