SI Swimsuit Issue, 1998
The last thing Niki Taylor remembers from the wee hours of April 29, 2001, is lying down in a patch of grass and feeling sick to her stomach. She had been riding back to Atlanta after an evening out dancing when her friend Chad Renegar, who was driving, reached down to answer his cell phone and lost control of the car, which skidded off the road and slammed into a telephone pole. Taylor, who had recently curtailed her globetrotting modeling career to spend more time with her seven-year-old twin sons, staggered out of the wreckage, then curled up in a fetal position to wait for an ambulance. (Renegar suffered only minor injuries in the accident, which police say involved neither drugs nor alcohol.)
In an instant Taylor, now 27, went from being one of the world's most visible women—she was featured in our Swimsuit Issue in 1997 and '98 and had appeared on more than 250 magazine covers in her career—to fighting for her life. Her famous face and willowy 5'11" frame were relatively unscathed by the accident, but the internal injuries, including a severed liver and a collapsed lung, that resulted from her wearing only her shoulder strap without her lap belt were massive. She lost consciousness in the ambulance and bled so profusely that doctors had to give her transfusions on the day after the accident equal to 10 times the volume of blood in her body.
When she finally regained consciousness, an intensive-care nurse at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital asked Taylor if she knew how long she'd been there. "I said four or five days," Taylor says. "She told me, 'Try a month and a half.' "
Taylor's recovery has involved more than 40 operations. All told, she spent nearly 12 weeks in the hospital and at an Atlanta rehab facility before returning to her Fort Lauderdale home to continue physical therapy. "After lying there for so long, I had to learn to move my arms and walk again," she says. "I had to learn to be a human being again."
She's still bothered by back pain, a result of scoliosis and vertebrae damage, but nine months after the accident she's nearly back. Taylor is well enough to care for her sons, Jake and Hunter, on her own again (she and their father divorced in 1996), and she has returned to a modified work schedule, posing recently for spreads in British Glamour, Redbook and Cosmopolitan. But the active life she used to enjoy is, for now, a thing of the past. "I can't run after my kids or go ice skating or Rollerblading with them," she says. "I'm basically just buying time right now until I can do those things again. I got a second chance at living, and I'm grateful."