When Mary Robicheaux's teammates got together for their first practice without the big, strong girl who had been critically injured while riding her bike, they were somber and stunned. "The kids were confused," said their coach, Charlie Renfro of the Alaska Pacific University nordic ski program.
How could they not be? One day, 13-year-old Mary was one of the fittest, most fun-loving kids they knew. The next, she was unconscious in a hospital with a broken back, two broken legs and a fractured skull.
"It was, like, shocking," said 12-year-old Luke Jager. "I didn't know how to handle it."
He found a way. Jager helped organize a 5-kilometer fun run and fundraiser that drew more than 300 people and raised more than $15,000 Sunday at APU.
The event was a scant three weeks in the planning, but it tapped into tight-knit groups that have been around town for decades.
Skiers came out in force to support one of their own -- Robicheaux "is one of the five to 10 best skiers in the state in her age group," Renfro said. So did members of the Dancing Bears, a dance group the Robicheaux family is involved in, as well as people from Winterberry Charter School, where Mary is an 8th grader.
"How wonderful this is, just seeing the community come together," said Olympic skier Holly Brooks of the APU program.
Robyn Lauster, who knows Mary from Dancing Bears, said she came because it was a tangible way of helping.
"This is physical," she said. "You have to show up, so you feel like you're doing something and not just writing a check."
Before the race, participants posed for a group photo that will be sent to Mary, who is scheduled to be released from the Children's Hospital in Denver on Tuesday -- nearly two months after her Aug. 28 accident. She should be back in Anchorage by Saturday or Sunday, family friend Tim Andrew said.
Andrew, whose family lives on the same block as the Robicheaux family, has been providing nearly daily updates at caringbridge.org, a website that helps friends and families stay connected during a medical crisis. Mary's page has had more than 12,000 hits.
So many people wanted to deliver dinner to the family that Andrew set up a schedule online. When he started filling dates for October, it took less than a day to fill the month. "We had to turn people away," he said.
Sunday's turnout was equally impressive. Jager said there was "an overabundance of volunteers" who showed up to help before the race.
"That was awesome," he said. "I never imagined anything like this."
Jager, who attends Begich Middle School, helped design the 5-kilometer course on the ski trails and single-track trails at APU. It challenged runners in any number of wicked ways -- a steep hill in the first few hundred meters, some logs to jump over later on, and a chicane right before the finish line. Course setters used surveyor tape to make the chicane, a feature used in Formula One racing to slow down drivers by making them zig-zag through a serpentine course.
It was a course, many agreed, that Mary would love.
"She would have a blast on it, for sure," said Daniel Serventi, a 17-year-old who won the race. "It's her kind of course."
The race was the second fundraiser of the weekend put together by Mary's friends and teammates. On Friday night, skiers from APU's development and junior groups showed up at Kinsey Denton's home loaded down by pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. They spent two hours rolling coins they had collected, and when they were done, their "Change for Mary" event had raised $3,730.37.
On Sunday, Denton and four others showed their support in another way: They took Sharpies to their stomachs to spell out MARY! They giggled while posing for photos after the race and then talked about how Mary's accident shook up their world.
"It was scary, because you think, that's my teammate, and it could happen to anyone," said Denton, 14, who had the letter M written on her belly.
"She's really lucky she was wearing her helmet," added Magdalen York, 14, who sported the letter A.
"Always wear your helmet," they said in unison.
According to police reports, Mary was crossing Northern Lights Blvd. at a crosswalk, with a traffic light in her favor, when a driver ran the light and struck her.
"She flipped and rolled over the top of the car," Andrew said.
Her condition was critical.
"We crossed our fingers that she was gonna live for those first few days," Renfro said. "It was that serious."
Three days later she had the first of three surgeries; according to Andrew's online reports, surgeons put titanium rods in her left femur and right tibia.
Five days after the accident, she was able to breath without a respirator. The next day she had her first bite of food.
But those milestones marked the beginning of her recovery, not the end. She suffered six fractured vertebrae and needed surgery to stabilize her spine and fuse one of the vertebra. Surgeons had to remove a rib and deflate a lung to get to the vertabra, Andrew said, and then another surgery was needed when a blood clot developed and prevented the lung from re-inflating.
"Once that lung started inflating again, she really started cooking," Andrew said. "She's really surprised all of us with her recovery."
She's already moving around on crutches, said Andrew, who along with others believe Mary's fitness and athleticism is aiding her recovery.
"I haven't heard anything about a return to skiing or running, but I know that's got to be a goal of hers," Andrew said. "In her room at the hospital she had pictures of Kikkan Randall and other women from the U.S. Ski Team, photos of them holding inspirational messages to Mary. It was strung like a banner across the room so she could see it.
"I can only imagine all the love and support people have shown has helped provide her with the strength to grit her teeth and get through this."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG