Keefer recovers to become a star

As a junior in high school, Maggie Keefer sustained a major head injury.

Minnesota diver Maggie Keefer dives from the high platform during the Big Ten Conference on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, at the University Aquatic Center.

Daily File Photo; Jaak Jensen

Minnesota diver Maggie Keefer dives from the high platform during the Big Ten Conference on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, at the University Aquatic Center.

David Nelson

Maggie Keefer doesn’t remember a lot about the accident.

She remembers walking to the platform with her synchronized diving partner. She remembers leaping off the platform and feeling unbalanced.

Then she forgets.

“I think I remember right before I took off I got a little off-balanced,” Keefer said. “And I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, I’ll just fix it in the air.’

“And then that’s the last thing I remember.”

The moment her head collided with the platform, Keefer severed her forehead, fractured her eye sockets and fractured her sinus bones.

Five titanium plates, screws and 70 to 120 stitches later, Keefer appears to be fully recovered.

She’s starred for the Gophers swimming and diving team since she arrived on campus and is in prime position to close her career on a high note.

The accident

Keefer and her partner were performing inward dives — meaning her head would be right next to the platform as she went by — when her head collided with the concrete platform.

Keefer, a Stillwater High School junior at the time, went sprawling into the pool and never came back up.

Her coaches immediately rushed into the pool to pull Keefer up from the bottom and waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“At first, we weren’t really sure what happened,” senior Sarah McCrady said. “Our coach just told us what happened, and we saw her bleeding in the pool.”

McCrady said coaches made sure the athletes kept their distance.

“We had to … leave the pool deck as she was getting carried off,” McCrady said. “I was one of the older ones in the club at that time, and so we had to kind of just keep everyone away from the situation.”

When Keefer woke up at Hennepin County Medical Center, the high school junior had no recollection of what had taken place.

“I was a little confused where I was,” Keefer said. “I think there were seven doctors surrounding me, and my parents were at the side of the bed.

“And my mom told me I hit my head on the 7-meter platform.”

Even with the extreme injuries, the competitive diver wanted to be back in time for that weekend’s meet.

“It didn’t faze me at all,” Keefer said. “I was just like, ‘OK, cool. Can I go to practice tomorrow?’”

Keefer’s mother, Lisa Keefer, said it was a relief to see her daughter cognizant when she arrived at the hospital.

“I said, ‘Well, you’re not going to be in the meet this weekend, but we’ll see about the rest of the summer,’” Lisa Keefer said. “It was a big summer for her [because] that’s when all the recruiters start looking at you.

“And I knew that she’d miss the whole summer.”

With Maggie Keefer out the entire summer, recruiters would have to wait.

The recovery

The Courage Center of Minnesota caters to more than 11,000 patients each year, with 15 percent of their clientele helping rehab brain injuries.

Keefer was one of those patients after the accident, but she said she found the methods the doctors used rather juvenile.

“They had me go to this place, and I had to draw circles and squares and triangles,” Keefer said. “I remember looking up to the person making me do all this stuff, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m going to be a senior in high school, and I’m drawing circles right now.’”

Keefer passed the brain exams with no problems, but it took a while for her physical injuries to heal.

When the time came four months later, coaches eased Keefer back in.

“I was a little nervous,” Keefer said. “I hadn’t done anything on my head, and I didn’t know how I would feel — but after I got back on the [diving] board … it felt natural again.”

Still, Gophers head diving coach Wenbo Chen, who was also Keefer’s club coach, made her wait until she got to college to get back on the platform diving.

“I cried a little bit [after diving off the platform],” Keefer said. “After I hit the water, I kind of knew everything was going to be fine and this is what I wanted to do.”

A college star

Now in her senior year, Keefer boasts plenty of diving achievements. She was named Big Ten Diver of the Year and was an All-American last season.

Chen said he could see from the start of her career that she had the potential to have this sort of success at the collegiate level.

“Maggie’s a very talented diver … very competitive,” Chen said. “Looking back through four years, she did a great job for us.”

While Chen said Keefer is in good position to perform well at this year’s NCAA championships after placing second last season, he said he didn’t add any pressure to her before the start of the season.

“I tell her, ‘Do your best, and we’ll be happy with that,’” Chen said. “If she does her best, she’ll be right back there.”

The 22-year-old said it would be “nice” to win at the NCAA meet this season but said she doesn’t hold any expectations for herself.

“I’ve been kind of that way since the beginning of my competitive career,” Keefer said. “If I don’t set the goal, then I do what I know [how] to do. [And] it’s worked.”