On the evening of July 2, 2010, 13-year-old Alex Otte was on a jet ski in Lake Herrington, waiting for her mom and brother to tie up their boat so she could dock.
She noticed the bass boat speeding over the water, and as trained, she stayed still. But the boat banked left and hit the jet ski going more than 50 miles an hour and landed on top of her. The propellers hit her legs, severing the right one. The boat sank and Alex’s mom saw beer cans floating to the surface.
Alex was airlifted to UK, her parents told to say goodbye. She stayed in a coma for a week as doctors cataloged her injuries: a traumatic brain injury so severe that it looked like shaken baby syndrome, a shattered jaw replaced by steel plates, a broken neck and collarbone, a lacerated liver, both femurs replaced with metal rods, and severe scars over her remaining left leg. The only reason she wasn’t paralyzed was that her mother Laura, a nurse, knew how to get her out of the water without moving her neck.
The boat’s driver, Sammy Jason Hackler, was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, wanton endangerment and second degree assault, according to court documents. His blood alcohol level was 0.15, well above the legal limit of .08. The grand jury declined to indict him on the assault and endangerment charges; he was found guilty of driving under the influence, fined $250 and let go.
He went his way without ever speaking to or trying to apologize to Alex. She slowly recovered, learned to walk with a prosthetic right leg.
“I wanted to be the last little girl this happened to,” she said. So as she got older, she volunteered with the Kentucky chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She testified in Frankfort for Fish and Wildlife, which monitors Kentucky’s waterways, about BUI, boating under the influence. She worked and wrote letters and talked to people. Along the way, she got a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and got married, too.
And then her dramatic tale took a dramatic twist: The national governing board of Mothers against Drunk Driving asked if she would consider a two-year stint as president. As the face of the fight against impaired driving, MADD was founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. It’s now a $45 million organization, and by its accounts has helped reduce drunk driving deaths by 50 percent while helping nearly one million victims.
Otte would become the youngest president ever, and the first injured victim who didn’t lose a close family member.
So she said yes.
‘I FORGAVE HIM’
Now Alex spends most of her time traveling from her house in Hartland to the Blue Grass Airport, to local chapters for fundraisers, but mostly to Washington to talk to lawmakers. Just finishing the first year of a two-year term, she hopes to see the passage of bipartisan legislation in Congress to require standard equipment in all new cars that can monitor driver performance, which would catch impaired driving, both from alcohol and drugs. In Kentucky, a judge can order breathalyzer equipment to be attached to a convicted driver’s car, but it’s at the discretion of the judge, and Alex thinks it’s applied haphazardly.
Although MADD has helped reduce drunk driving deaths, they seem to have plateaued at about 10,000 a year for the past several years. Experts estimate the legislation could lower that number by 9,400 a year. “This is a really big step,” she said.
MADD works on different ways to decrease drunk and drugged driving, like the new legislation. But what they really want, at least what Alex really wants, is to help the victims and to make people, including a lot of young people, think about the choice they make when they get behind the wheel of a car impaired. It’s a choice, Alex, argues, and then it’s a crime, not an accident. “The culture of calling them accidents is part of the problem,” she said. “Calling it an accident gives them an easy way out.”
Alex Otte is poised, mature, and can recite the details of her experience by heart, as she does to audiences and journalists all over the country. She even speaks calmly about Hackler, who never apologized and once told a television reporter that the accident was her fault.
“I forgave him a really long time ago,” she said. “He’d taken so much from me, and being angry would give him more power over my life. I’m in a really good place now.
“What I would say to him is that he didn’t win. He took so much from me but he didn’t win.”
Hackler did not respond to a request for comment.
But trauma reverberates for Otte every time there is another death, like Marco Shemwell, 4, who was hit and killed by a UK student who’d been drinking two years ago. “If we could just stop this, Marco would be alive,” she said. “But the devastation is still happening.”
The trauma echoes for her mother, Laura, who unlike Alex, remembers every detail of that evening, as Alex was loaded up on the helicopter. “I knew she was gone,” Laura said, as she held back tears. “I did say goodbye and I told her I’d love her forever.”
But then Laura started to cry again. “I guess the biggest thing I can say is that when she woke up, and we told her what had happened and her leg was gone, she said ‘was anybody else hurt?’ That’s what she said to me.”
UK FOOTBALL FOREVER
There is another story about Alex that her mother would like people to know about how she went from trauma to advocacy. About nine months after the accident, she met UK Coach Rock Oliver, who was impressed with this teenager who had such a big smile. He asked her to speak to the football team of 2011, players like Danny Trevathan and La’Rod King. She talked to them about adversity; they cheered her on through months of grueling physical therapy.
She was a good role model for the players, Oliver said.
“I’m not surprised at anything that Alex does,” he said. “We really admired the strength she showed at such a young age, we kind of rallied with her.”
And that created a lifelong, ardent UK football fan.
“When you’re 13 years old, you wake up from a coma, you’ve lost a leg, you’re in a neck brace, and the UK football embraced my little girl for no reason other than being good guys,” Laura said. “Coach Rock would check in on her while she was at school, she got these opportunities she never would have had, and met the people who have influenced and supported her.”
And there it is, the fundamental question of who Alex Otte would be today without the terrible experience she lived through. Not a blessing in disguise, let’s say, but something completely life-changing.
“She wouldn’t be in the position she’s in,” Laura said. “She wouldn’t do the things she’s attempted to do … this tragic collision did not impact who she is, it just made her stronger.”
Certainly, life has turned out differently than Alex expected, when her only dream was to be the next Erin Andrews, commenting about football on televisions everywhere. She has to get groundbreaking legislation passed, and then the question of her next iteration can be considered. It’s a little complicated, she noted, because most past president of MADD (Mothers against Drunk Driving) retire when they retire because most of them are of retirement age. “I’ll be 26 and there’s no real precedent for what that looks like,” she said.
Oh, and she’s also right now working on an MBA in marketing and ethics because “I just really love school.”
She has the speaking skills of a lawyer; her mother could see her there or in some other kind of advocacy.
“I can’t imagine my child not either being in politics or being a lawyer,” Laura said. “She’s got something that is driven in her, she will stay in some kind of service where she’s trying to make things better.”