Holly Brooks felt like she had been punched in the stomach when she heard the news from Alaska Pacific University (APU) development coach Charlie Renfro. One of their skiers, 13-year-old Mary Robicheaux, had been hit by a car while riding her bike the night of Aug. 28, and it was unclear whether she was going to survive.
A driver ran a stoplight and struck the eighth grader, who was in a crosswalk with the traffic signal in her favor. She was wearing a helmet, but knocked unconscious when she flipped onto the vehicle and rolled off. Mary was rushed to the hospital in Anchorage with a fractured skull, broken back and two broken legs.
Her APU teammate and close family friend, Luke Jager received a similar phone call about Mary’s critical condition. At 12, he hadn’t dealt with anything like that before, and neither had his friends.
“We didn’t really know any details,” Luke said in a phone conversation. “We weren’t even sure she was going to live at first. … We’ve heard of stuff like this happening, but it was the first time it ever really happened close to home for us.”
Renfro wrote in an email that the next day at practice was “really hard, but I knew I had to be positive for Mary’s teammates and coaches.”
The development, or devo, group of 12 to 14 year olds spent the first half hour talking about what happened and answering questions. Then they made banners for Mary’s room at the hospital.
“That was a hard practice,” Renfro wrote. “Team moral was at an all-time low.”
While Mary was a top-10 skier in Alaska in her age group and a strong skate sprinter, Renfro explained she was also extremely fun and lighthearted.
“She is one of those athletes that you look forward to seeing at every practice, and you notice when she isn’t there,” he wrote.
Without much information to go off (Mary had surgery three days later to put titanium rods in her left femur and right tibia, and was on a respirator for five days), Luke and his teammates figured she’d be OK, so they started brainstorming how to help her recover. When they learned a medical-transport flight to Denver, Colo., ran upwards of $20,000 dollars, they really hit the drawing board.
Initially, Luke’s father, Jim Jager, said the parents of these youngsters put their fundraising ideas on hold to get a better sense of Mary’s prognosis. Once they read on her family’s update website that she was improving, they gave their kids the go-ahead.
Luke had already planned a 5-kilometer running course at APU’s University Lake Park.
On Sunday, his vision came to life at Mary’s Fun(d) Run and far surpassed his expectations. An estimated 500 people from the ski community and her school and dance club came together for the benefit and raised more than $15,000 dollars in the process. Jager and Rob Whitney (Brooks’ husband) helped organize the event, and Luke set an initial goal of about 100 runners. Once they saw the race was gaining steam via Facebook and word of mouth, they printed 500 place cards to be safe.
“We basically took our wildest expectations and doubled it,” Jager said.
They weren’t far off with their high-end estimates; the run attracted more than 300 participants.
All proceeds went to Mary, who was expected to leave the Children’s Hospital in Denver, Colo., on Tuesday to fly back to Anchorage. It would be her first time home in nearly two months.
On Monday, race coverage and Brooks’ homemade banner, which read “We (heart) Mary,” made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think we’d pull in 15+ K of funds,” Whitney wrote in an email. “I was gonna be happy if we brought in 7500! Was I ever wrong!
“Think about it … how can anyone not smile when they see some high-school aged kids doing something good for one of their own wounded soldiers?” he added. “Many kids would just sit on their fanny and play video games (sorry for the cynicism…but it’s true!), but not xc skiers!”
Every nordic club in Anchorage was represented, including the Alaska Winter Stars and Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage (where Luke, Mary and most of their friends started as Junior Nordic skiers).
APU enlisted members from its entire program, from the elite to the development levels, to help out. Outside of the ski center, the university itself also showed support with its president, Don Bantz, running the challenging course.
“It was about as far as you can get from a road race,” Luke said. “We added some log jumps on the trail that [racers] could jump over and some pretty gnarly single-track sections and brutal hills.”
Some of the inclines were 65 to 70 degrees, Jager said. On a chilly morning with frost lining a grassy finish, racers were slipping all over the place and laughing about it.
“I feel very comfortable saying that nobody ran a PR 5 k yesterday,” Jager added. “Everybody was having a great time.”
As the day wore on, it became clear how big this fundraiser was.
“I was getting interviewed or something, and I came back and I was talking to Brett Renfro, Charlie Renfro’s wife, and she was like, ‘Yeah, did you hear? We’re at $13,000 dollars right now!’ ” Luke said. “I couldn’t really believe it. I had told a Daily News reporter before that, ‘I’d be happy if we raised $4,000 dollars,’ and the fact that we more that tripled that, I don’t know …”
Without any expenses and every dime going to Mary, they squeezed everything they could out of the event. Luke did pushups for each additional dollar and emceed a final effort by Andy Rogers, who offered to match $20-dollar donations.
“We were making sure that Luke knew what to say because he had the mike,” Brooks wrote in an email. “His response was, ‘I listen to NPR … I KNOW what a matching donation is!’ We just about died laughing!
“He’s 12 with the wit and confidence of a 40 year old,” she added. That’s what made the fundraiser a success.
Paired with a “Change for Mary” coin drive held last Friday, in which APU juniors raised more than $3,700 dollars by rolling coins, the grand total reached nearly $19,000 dollars. Luke hadn’t spoken with Mary as of Monday, but based on her thank-you comments on Facebook, he could tell she was happy.
She had come a long way since he first saw her about a week after the accident, when she was still unconscious.
“You could tell it was Mary but she just looked really beat up,” he said. “The worst part … it was really shocking seeing so many tubes in her body.”
He visited her again the day before she left Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage for Colorado in early October. This time, she was conscious and “in a better mood than we were,” Luke said. “It was good to see that.”
In describing Mary, he said she’s “the epitome of happy. She’s always smiling no matter what we’re doing at practice, and she has a lot of friends. She’s a really friendly person in general and really tough.”
Looking back, Luke was excited about what they accomplished for her.
“It’s kind of cool because we saw this and we wanted it to happen,” he said. “We wanted it to be put on by a group of Mary’s friends and all of us are kids. … We had a group of middle schoolers and high schoolers put on a race that raised $15,000 dollars with a couple of adults.”
The event not only raised money for an injured local teen, it also brought awareness to the community about what happened.
“I think that everyone in one way or another could identify with Mary’s story,” Brooks wrote. “It could easily happen to anyone. She was doing everything right — she had the right away on her bicycle. Thank goodness she was wearing her helmet. There is NO DOUBT that it saved her life.
“This entire experience has impacted all of us – Rob & myself, the entire APU community & the entire Alaska endurance community,” she added. “The accident was a prime example of how 10 seconds can substantially alter someone’s life.”
Whitney was impressed with how the community rallied, much like it did to support the seriously injured runner, Matt Kenney of Anchorage, who fell off a cliff during the Mount Marathon race earlier this year.
“The AK ski community is a small group, so I think regardless whether or not you know someone personally, because we all share the same love of a similar sport, that creates a bond,” he wrote.
While he hadn’t met Mary, his wife used to coach her.
“Support from a community to help someone in need not only helps Mary, but brings everyone together,” he added. “Lots of energy channeled in synergy can lift up the deserving … and in this case, this fundraiser did just that.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.