'Sarah Strong': Losing her legs hasn't stopped this Utah teen from pursuing her passions

'Sarah Strong': Losing her legs hasn't stopped this Utah teen from pursuing her passions

(Courtesy of Sarah Frei)

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SYRACUSE — "Will I be able to swim? Will I be able to drive? Will I be able to cheer?"

These were just a few of the many questions 17-year-old Sarah Frei asked as she laid in a hospital bed recovering from a double amputation and other critical injuries she suffered after she was hit by a suspected drunk driver.

"Yes," her parents, Greg and Amy Frei, confidently answered to every one of their daughter's questions. And now, just six months later, the senior in high school has regained her independence and pursued some new hobbies.

"She's still able to do the things that she wants to do, which is just amazing," Amy said.

Back when the doctor told Sarah's parents their daughter would need double amputation surgery, Amy remembers immediately telling her husband that they can do this and most importantly, that "Sarah is strong." That message stayed with the family throughout the entire journey of Sarah's recovery, with loved ones wearing shirts with the message written across the front.

Once Sarah realized she wasn't going to limit herself, it was no longer a question of if she could cheer again, but when.

"It's really important to me; it's my favorite hobby by far," she said. "I knew that it would be modified, but I was still able to be a part of the team."

She learned a new cheer routine, set to her favorite song "Home Sweet" by country singer Russell Dickerson in her hospital bed, and performed the routine at a Clearfield High School football game the day after returning home.

Dickerson later saw the performance and surprised Sarah with a brand new accessible car for her to use.

"It was a big, huge surprise for me. My parents knew like a week in advance of what was happening, but I had no idea what was going on. I thought that I was having just another interview, but then Russell Dickerson came onto the screen, and that was super, super cool," she said.

In the weeks and months after the crash, Sarah's community showed great support for her, with hundreds of individuals in "Sarah Strong" shirts lining the streets when she came home from the hospital in October and moving the teen to tears.

"I think that that's helped my progress, as well, because I'm constantly getting letters of encouragement, and that's really special to me," she said.

The crash has also pushed the family into advocacy roles against drunk driving and Sarah's Bill (HB 47) was created in response to the devastating crash. The bill would impose harsher bail limits for a person accused of injuring people while driving drunk.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsored the bill after learning the driver who allegedly caused the car crash had posted bail while the injured teens were still in the hospital. The bill recently passed the Utah House of Representatives and is in the Senate for discussion.

"That's been just another blessing to have come out of this tragedy, and to see the Legislature make changes to the Utah law that account for the gaps in the deficiencies has just been so wonderful," Greg Frei said.

Looking back on the past six months, neither Sarah nor her parents would've guessed the 17-year-old would have progressed so quickly and healed so well in such a short time — Sarah even had a surgery scheduled for December that ended up getting canceled; she had healed on her own.

"If you told me six months ago that I would be in a car driving myself, you know, I'd have told you you're crazy," Greg Frei recalled Sarah telling him just last week.

Now, the soon-to-be graduate is making plans to attend Utah State University with hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher. She also recently started a teaching internship at Bluff Ridge Elementary School, where she attended school as a child.

Over the next six months, Sarah said she is excited to continue physical therapy and will continue working on her physical strength exercises. In that time she plans to reach full independence and even has a senior trip planned with friends this summer and no parents — every teenager's dream, she joked.

"I'll be able to do everything by myself," she said. "I just want to be a normal teenager and show doing these things, just like everyone else does, fills me with joy. And I want to continue to do these things that everyone else does just to prove to myself that I can still be just like any other teenager. And I feel like that's one of my main drives, is just wanting as much of a normal life as I can and not letting this stop my future plans that I had."

"Knowing that my future hasn't changed really helps me," she added.

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with KSL.com who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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