When the car slid to a stop, Mara Cunningham was still strapped into the driver's seat and Jimmy Buffett was still singing from the tape deck. But the red Mustang convertible was upside down, and her bloodied left cheek was pressed against the blacktop. "Then, all of a sudden," she says, "the pain hit."
Cunningham, a junior forward at Vanderbilt, and her boyfriend, Austin Bates, a sophomore forward on the Vandy men's team, were en route to Charleston, S.C., for a mid-August vacation. Just outside Columbia, S.C., at about 12:15 p.m., Cunningham glanced down at a map, the car drifted, and her right tires slipped onto the shoulder. When she tried to muscle the car back onto the road, it skidded sideways, flipped over and slid 40 feet.
Bystanders helped Cunningham out of the car first, and she sat with her hands over her bloody face. Bates's right thumb was stuck under the car—the dislocation would later require surgery—and by the time he was pulled from the wreckage, the puddle of Cunningham's blood was trickling down the pavement toward him.
"She basically used her face as a brake," says Dr. Kurt Spindler, the Vanderbilt team physician. Nearly 200 stitches and three hours of plastic surgery were required to close the gashes on Cunningham's scalp, check and chin. The most serious injury—the one that threatened her basketball career—was to her left eye. "It was like my eyelid was torn off," says Cunningham. Doctors removed scores of gravel particles from behind her eye and reconstructed the lid. It still doesn't close all the way, but other than double images in her peripheral vision, her sight is now almost normal. And last week Cunningham scored nine points and had five assists in the Commodores' season-opening win over Florida International, despite not only her recent injuries but also two knee operations in the last three years.
"From a basketball standpoint, she's never been better," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster. During the 1991-92 season Cunningham averaged 9.0 points and 4.7 rebounds and was named to the Southeastern Conference all-freshman team, although she missed the last seven games of the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament. As a sophomore Cunningham came off the bench to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the SEC tournament. Last November she reinjured the ACL in the second game of the season and was out the rest of the year. In July she was pronounced ready for action, but then came the accident.
Cunningham's face has healed to the point that fans sitting 20 rows up in the stands will notice her skills, not her scars. She will have more plastic surgery next summer, but in the meantime she isn't bothered much by the stares. "It's not like all of a sudden people are looking at me," says the 6'4" Cunningham.
"Nothing stops her," says teammate Rhonda Blades, a senior guard and a nursing student. "She can blow out her knee, just about get killed in a car wreck, and she's worried about playing basketball. She's tough."