NEW CARLISLE — For the sake of a split second, Juliana Kroll would've come out of the car accident unscathed. For the sake of a split second, the New Prairie senior also knows she could've been killed.
"Any sooner, everybody says they don't think I would have been alive," Kroll said. "You look at the pictures, you can see the (back) seat is pushed up."
Kroll was on her way to the high school on a Saturday morning back in March to take the SAT when the driver of a pickup truck ran a red light at the intersection of 2 and 20, the final weekend before construction began, striking the side and back of her Hyundai Elantra, sending her car into a spin.
"His claim was there was a glare on the windshield," Kroll said. "That red light was known to turn red for a while before the light turns green, so I don't know."
While the other driver was not injured, the impact of the collision threw Kroll into the car door, shattering the window. She never lost consciousness, but was put in a neck brace as a precaution and taken by ambulance to Memorial Hospital in South Bend.
"I remember everything," Kroll said.
Shards of glass cut her left eyelid and scratched her cornea, causing scarring and diminishing her vision to 20/50. She suffered nerve damage in her head, but remains grateful six months later to be in one piece.
"I could've lost my eye if he had hit me in the front and (the glass) had gone deeper," said Kroll, who was released after surgery the same day. "I was a little sore for a couple weeks, but it went away and I was fine."
She missed a couple weeks of school and about three weeks of running, abbreviating her track season, though she was able to run in the sectional.
"I really wanted to get back into it," Kroll said. "I love cross, I love to run. It made it really tough."
While Kroll was physically back, Julie Jeszenszky, the girls cross country and track coach, noticed she wasn't the same otherwise.
"Mentally, seriously, she was not in an OK place," Jeszenszky said. "She wasn't able to get herself out of that situation."
Over the course of the summer, Kroll was methodically able to find that good place again.
"I really missed training, that's what helped me get back," she said. "But I also think I really did forget how to run in a way, how to breathe, how to control how fast and slow I should go. I took that (track) season as a push to know that I had the summer runs and I could start the (cross country) season strong. I did realize when I was running in the summer, the first time trial, it was rough. I noticed some things were different. I wasn't mentally right. But once we started to get into races, really get into practice, it was better."
Kroll developed what she calls an 'accident nerve,' an empathy she feels when she sees or hears about an accident, though it also has enabled her to gain a greater appreciation for distance running.
"I drive very cautious," she said. "When I look at the pictures, I'm astonished I'm still here and able to run, to do what I love. After being hurt, now I look at people who don't get to come back to it, who miss out on everything they used to do. I was given a gift to stay alive and be able to get back to it, and that's what pushed me. I'm running for people who aren't able to run."
As Jeszenszky describes her, Kroll is 'a completely different person now than she was last spring.'
"It's awesome," Jeszensky said. "She and Hannah Chlebowski are good about leading by example, getting them going on what they're supposed to do, being vocal, doing what a captain does."
On the heels of her career personal best of 20 minutes, 35 seconds Saturday in the Harrison Invitational, Kroll finished second in Tuesday's sweaty Cougar Kickoff, logging a 21:47.9 in the early-fall heat and humidity.
"I feel like I have improved tremendously," she said. "I'm faster than I was last year at semistate."
The Cougars finished second, 41-59, to South Bend St. Joseph, running the meet without No. 1 Lillian Zelasko, while fellow freshman Ilayna Baltes didn't finish the race.
"(Baltes) was kind of staggering on Agony Hill," Jeszenszky said. "At first, I thought she was just misplacing her feet. Kids don't drink enough water. It doesn't matter how many times I tell them. I think she went out a little too aggressively. You live and learn. Sage Mougin ran a really solid race. She's been struggling lately, so we tried something different. I have to chat with her and see how she feels, but I think she did well. I told her I'd allow her to be mad for 30 minutes if it didn't go in her favor. Audrey's been really solid, too. They all ran pretty well, given the conditions."
The NP boys won with 33 points, well in front of St. Joseph (69), paced by runner-up Josh Baltes (a course personal best 17:37.3, second) and Tim O'Laughlin (17:45.4, third).
"It made it tougher. It made the race feel a lot slower," Baltes said of the heat. "I thought with the competition that was here, I wouldn't have to (go out slower) and I think I'm glad I didn't by the way the race turned out. This is huge for me on this course, time-wise, taking out the first mile hard with people right there behind me pushing me."
Hobart's Bruce Leipart pulled away in the final straightaway to win in 17:28.8.
"He made a break for it and I knew I wasn't going to catch him," Baltes said. "It just wasn't there. It was a combination of things, the heat, pushing it out there a lot earlier."
Quinn Beall was fifth, Alex Cicero tenth and Tom Wykoff 13th for the Cougars.
"Conditions are like this every year," New Prairie boys coach John Arndt said. "We know we're not going to race this truly. I tell the guys to use it to get enough tempo and if you want to race, go for it, have fun. A few of them decided to give it a shot. Honestly, I loved seeing Josh get ahead of things and Tim's coming back from a knee issue. We're liking the progression quite a bit."
Marquette's Jake Tarnow took sixth in 18:17.