(Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
(Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
When a black Monte Carlo plowed through a busy embankment striking Jennifer Willette and nine other people last year at the Madison Regatta, time seemed to stand still.

Everything around the accident stopped. Crews working on Unlimited hydroplanes stopped preparing for the final heat of the Indiana Governor's Cup. Vendors quit selling candy and trinkets. Life came to a virtual stop.

And one life did stop - at least temporarily.

That was the life of Jennifer Willette. Her heart stopped beating momentarily as the car plowed over her, injuring her severely.

Modern medicine - coupled with endless prayers - restarted Willette's heart, but many things in her young life continued to stand still.

All the best doctors in the country couldn't cure what laid ahead for the Willette family. Future plans to close on a house were put on hold. An upcoming wedding had to be postponed and the high-paying job of Rory Willette, Jennifer's father had to stop.

Life as the Willette family knew would forever be changed.

But as the frantic minutes turned to hours, and the hours turned to days, hope grew. And with each ensuing day, Jennifer began to heal. Eventually, seven months after the tragic events of July 2, 2006, Jennifer returned home to Madison Heights, Mich., free of everyday hospital care.

Since that time, the family has learned to cope with their new lives.

This is the story of Jennifer. It is not a story of tragedy, but a testament to faith and perseverance. Her story is one of inspiration and hope.

July 8, 2001

The story begins on Vaughn Drive in 2001. This is Jennifer's first trip to Madison to see the Madison Regatta.

Between racing action, Jennifer's time was spent alongside fiance Eric Sellers, cruising the many vendors that lined Vaughn Drive.

When the boats were racing, Jennifer watched intently. One boat in particular caught her eye.

That's when she placed a friendly bet with her boyfriend.

"I fell in love with the Miss Madison," Jennifer said. "So I bet my boyfriend that it would win."

And when the Steve David piloted U-6 Oh Boy!Oberto/Miss Madison shocked the hydroplane world by winning the Madison Regatta, an elated Jennifer was hooked on the sport.

"It's my favorite boat," she said.

From then on, Jennifer vowed to follow the sport and forever root for David. She also fell in love with the city and would make an annual trek to Madison in hopes magic could be struck again and the hometown boat would taste victory.

Tragedy on the River

Five years later, Jennifer wanted to show her father Madison. Rory Willette's job at Ford landed him in Louisville for a couple of weeks, so a drive to Madison wouldn't be out of the question.

Rory Willette met his daughter at her favorite spot to watch the race.

Even before the accident, the racing was subpar. High waters interfered with the racing. Boats in the Unlimited fleet battled the elements all day. And one right after another would be sidelined with irreparable damage.

But the father and daughter didn't care. They were together and enjoying life.

Just as American Boat Racing Association crews were deciding whether to run the final heat due to the extensive damage to the boats, the Willette's life changed forever.

When the car crashed through the barricades and over the busy embankment, people were in shock. No matter what side of the course families were staying at, terror erupted.

As screams and cries could be heard all along Vaughn Drive, one area was silent.

That was the path of destruction caused by the vehicle, which cut a swath through the Willette's spot.

Rescue crews worked to pull Rory away from the scene. He had suffered a shoulder injury from the wreck.

His injuries would pale in comparison to those of his daughter.

Jennifer nearly died that day. Her heart stopped and her body was severely injured. Everyday heroes from StatCare airlifted Jennifer in hopes of giving her a chance.

"I don't remember much," Jennifer said recently.

The Hospital

As Jennifer lay at University of Louisville Hospital, her mother in Michigan received two phone calls.

The first came from King's Daughters' Hospital in Madison. It was the hospital letting her know that her husband was admitted to the hospital for injuries sustained at the Regatta.

Sarah Willette made plans to come to Madison to be with her husband.

Then the phone rang again.

This time it was from Louisville telling Sarah about her daughter who was in very serious condition. The condition was so bad, according to Sara, that she was prepared for her daughter's death.

The Louisville hospital sent a charter flight to Michigan to pick up Sarah and Jennifer's sister Tiffany and bring them to Kentucky. Confused, and shocked, the family was in Louisville within a matter of hours.

When they arrived at the hospital, they would see their Jennnifer breathing through tubes and ventilators. Just seconds later, Rory arrived after he checked out of KDH to be with his daughter.

And that's when their life forever changed.

"It's been a roller coaster ride," Rory said. "I wouldn't wish that feeling on my worst enemy. You talk about up and down emotions."

As Jennifer lay recovering from infections and broken limbs, family members slept on floors and showered in hospital bathrooms. Jennifer's brother Rory Jr., joined the family just a few days later after driving in from Kansas City.

But the family did something that will forever be a testament to power of a strong family - they survived.

The Willette Family

With all the family summoned to the hospital, the family stood by Jennifer. Sleeping was done in shifts. The younger Rory cared for his father who was still feeling the effects of his injury. The pain in Rory's lower back was so severe that he had to lay down in a hotel room for a few hours at a time just to regain the strength to go on.

"We always had a strong family," Rory said. "Without having to say a word, we all lent our help. We believe in taking care of ourselves."

So as the Willette's prayed and begged to talk to their daughter again, a miracle began to happen. Doctors at the hospital noticed that Jennifer was beginning to respond to medicine.

Suddenly, Jennifer was beginning to come back to her family.

And her family began experiencing hope.

Final months of hospitalization

Eventually, Jennifer's wounds were stabilized enough that she was able to be transferred to University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., closer to her home.

Jennifer spent her last four months of her hospitalization in Michigan with her family by her side. While at the hospital, she was occasionally allowed to go home for special events, but she could never spend too much time away from doctor's care.

Finally, on Feb. 2, Jennifer was released from everyday care. She arrived home to friends and family by her side.

Though her hospitalization was over, she faced months of therapy.

"The physical therapy is difficult," Rory said. "It's an up and down process."

Even when times get her down, Jennifer makes goals for herself as well.

"I hope each time is better than the last," Jennifer said. "I work hard to get better than I was before."

Faith and Recovery

Meanwhile, back at Madison, scores of people pray that Jennifer will recover from the horrific tragedies. One of those people is Jennifer's favorite hydroplane driver.

"It is amazing," Steve David said. "The Willette family are wonderful people. But this shows you what faith can do."

Amazingly, the already spiritual family never lost their faith in God.

"This is no time to lose faith," Rory said.

Even in their darkest hours, they prayed to their higher being that a miracle would happen.

"The Willettes are people of faith and want to see God's will," David said.

So in the wake of tragedy, the Willette family never laid down and felt sorry for their situation. They likened it to being God's will.

Even Jennifer saw good in what happened.

"If anything I am stronger because of it," she said. "I believe in miracles everyday, and that's why I am here today."

Since that tragic day, Jennifer and the rest of the family have maintained close ties to Madison and David. Several times each month, David shares e-mails and stories with his new friends.

And the Willettes hold David close to their hearts.

"Steve is part of the family now," Rory said. "He is amazing. He and the entire Oberto team have done so much for us."

David is so close to the family that in March of this year, he accepted the fan of the year award on Jennifer's behalf.

But the feeling of love and support didn't end there. For Christmas, David and the Oberto team pitched in and gave Jennifer a radio controlled replica of Jennifer's favorite boat. That present will forever touch Rory and the rest of the family.

"I remember Jennifer came home briefly and opened the gift she was so excited," Rory said. "Of all the presents that was her favorite. They (the Oberto family and Steve David) are so good to us."

The gift exchange doesn't end there. Earlier this month, Jennifer returned to Madison to watch her favorite race. While in the pit area to talk with David, she gave him a piece of her home when she presented David with a Detroit Tigers t-shirt.

David returned the favor by giving her a Miss Madison crew shirt.

Then one week later when the hydroplane circuit came to Detroit, Jennifer was on hand to see David again.

"We saw Steve David wearing the Tigers shirt that next week," Rory said. "What was funny about that was Jennifer was wearing the Oberto shirt they gave us last week. They both laughed at wearing each other's clothes."

Laughter and happiness is priceless for the Willette family these days.

Hope and Inspiration

Instead of tears and worries, the Willettes share moments of laughter and joy. Earlier this week Jennifer's sister celebrated her 25th birthday. Instead of a year ago when the family faced an uncertain future, the two close sisters enjoyed an afternoon at the movies.

"Last year I was in the hospital," Jennifer said. "That made this year so special."

And after the movies, the two sisters engaged in some sort of normalcy again.

"I had to break up a pillow fight between them," Rory said.

While Jennifer is inspiring members of her family, she is also inspiring David. For two weeks, Jennifer was on hand to root for her favorite driver. And she didn't go unnoticed.

"When you see her up there cheering for you, it means something," David said. "It is comforting in a way. We all have problems, but when you look up and see her smile, it hits you. This is a special girl."

Future Plans

Life still isn't normal for the Willette household. Rory and Sara haven't returned to work because Jennifer hasn't fully recovered. She is still scarred and will be for life.

The family is supported thanks to Jennifer's brother who is working full-time to support the family financially.

"He is even taking care of the dog," Rory said.

But even in hard times, the family is looking ahead to the future. Jennifer recently closed on that house and is anticipating the day she can live independently.

"I just want to be married one day and start my own family," Jennifer said.

Even in the wake of a tragedy, Eric Sellers vowed to stay with his fiance and prepare for their next step in life. Recently Eric closed on the house and is anxiously awaiting the day Jennifer can move in.

And her tragic turn in life may have opened new doors for her.

"I don't know what I want to do, but I think I want to work in a hospital,"

Whatever comes of Jennifer, she has plenty of fans. Whether it be her loving family, or the thousands of people in Madison and points elsewhere that pray and care for her daily, everyone wants her to succeed.

"She and her family are a living exhibition of faith and perseverance," David said. "They rose above anything that was thrown at them. It really takes you back to see that."