Real Women: How an athlete and a photojournalist rebounded after injury
Cait McMahan was leaping into the air, fists clenched, neck veins popping, mouth open in a scream of joy.
The High School All-American basketball player had just led her Heritage High School girls’ basketball team to a rip-roaring come-from-behind win in a regional tournament game.
News Sentinel photographer Cathy Clarke had seen it coming.
In the one/500th of a second shutter speed of her camera, Clarke captured on film the precise peak of McMahan’s moment of triumph.
The picture was taken Feb. 28, 2004.
Since then, the photographer and her subject have had life-changing injuries. Each has been through surgeries, struggled with grueling physical rehab regimens and dealt with cruel disappointments.
Their parallel stories are about teeth-gritting perseverance, and learning to move on after the most important things in their lives were snatched away from them.
That picture is now a special memento to both of them, of a time past when both were at the top of their game and all of their goals seemed achievable.
Sports coaches like to say that luck or success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
Clarke, herself a former basketball player, had anticipated a major emotional reaction by McMahan. She quickly moved into position to capture it on film.
“I was so pleased with it that it was the only picture from the whole game I sent back (to the News Sentinel),” recalls Clarke, now 51. “I knew it told the whole story of the game.”
McMahan is now 23. She said her first reaction to the picture was that of the 16-year-old girl she was at the time: She thought it was unflattering.
“I thought it kind of made me look like a turtle,” she said with a laugh.
But she came to realize what an exceptional picture it was and came to appreciate it.
“Then I just said, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “And even today, sometimes when I look at it I still just say, ‘Wow.’ ”
Until very recently, neither McMahan nor Clarke knew how much the picture meant to the other.
“Of all the pictures and stories that were done in the time I played basketball — and there were a lot of them — that was the one that my mother chose to have framed,” recalls McMahan.
She said her mother, Teresa McMahan, then placed the framed picture in a prominent spot in their home, where it often drew comments from visitors.
Her mother’s choice of that picture made it mean even more to Cait. The two were very close. For years, Teresa McMahan had set an example of courage and remained upbeat — even as she battled the cancer that both knew would eventually take her life.
Clarke won several awards for the picture. But like many photographers — especially photojournalists — she is not overly showy about her own work.
She simply stuck a paper copy of the picture on her refrigerator.
It remains there to this day.
“That was always one of my very favorite pictures,” she said. “It still is. The refrigerator is where I put a lot of my personal favorite pictures.”
In February 2005, McMahan suffered the first of a series of knee injuries that would slowly diminish, and ultimately end, her promising basketball career. A torn ACL kept her from playing in the state playoffs that year. Her comment to reporters reflected an unusual perspective for one so young: “Some people don’t even have legs … so I’m still thankful.”
I remember bouncing around in the car like a pingpong ball.
Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess // Buy this photo
In September 2006, Clarke was driving in a heavy rainstorm on Interstate 75, heading back from an assignment in Norris. In her living room at home, an array of gear was already laid out, in anticipation of a hike the next day. Her car hydroplaned, crossed the median and was T-boned by an SUV.
“I remember bouncing around in the car like a pingpong ball,” Clarke said. She had to be cut out of the car.
Her injuries included a blow to the head that temporarily impaired her memory, cognitive abilities and vision. It also caused neuromuscular issues, some of which still linger.
“At first she could not even raise up or roll over in the hospital bed,” said Clarke’s life partner, Paula DeVore. A stay at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center was followed by another one in Franklin, Tenn.
Veteran News Sentinel photographer J. Miles Cary was among Clarke’s many friends who visited her during recovery.
“The most upsetting thing for me was watching her (first attempts to) walk,” Cary said. “She had always been so active and athletic.”
Today, Clarke is on disability with lingering effects from the wreck. She walks stiffly and with difficulty. She is still undergoing physical therapy.
Though still unable to work as a photojournalist, she hopes to be able to do so again someday.
“She has that determination, plain old hard-headedness,” DeVore said. “She has improved in every category better than the doctors first hoped for.”
What Clarke still faces “is not going to be any kind of a walk in the park,” said her current physical therapist, Eric Rockwell.
Sometimes I had Candace Parker to watch her for me.
Jenny Moshak, Lady Vols trainer
Photo by Michael Patrick // Buy this photo
In November 2005, McMahan realized one of her dreams when she signed to become a Lady Vol.
Just 19 days later, she re-injured her knee and could not play her senior year of high school. Immediately after graduating, she enrolled in summer school at the University of Tennessee and began preparing for college ball. She entrusted Lady Vols strength coach Heather Mason and trainer Jenny Moshak to get her knee ready.
Those efforts would continue for years.
McMahan, just over 5 feet 4 inches tall, was a fireball of a player, whose style was to dive after any loose ball and take any charge. It was a style of play especially unsuited to an uncertain knee, Moshak said.
McMahan approached her rehab the same way she played. Moshak even had to rein her in to keep her from overdoing it. “Sometimes I had (her teammate) Candace Parker to watch her for me,” Moshak said.
As a patient, Clarke proved to be just as hard to guard as McMahan.
While she was still unable to walk, a mesh protective tent was placed around her bed to keep her from falling out, DeVore recalls. One night, Clarke reached the outside zipper, opened it up, and made it to a chair in her room.
She was pleased to be sitting up in the chair. The nurses who found her were not. They promptly put her back into the bed.
Then came the wheelchair period. Again for safety reasons, a strap was used to keep her from falling out of the wheelchair.
“She hated the wheelchair, but she really hated that strap,” DeVore said. “She hates to be restrained in any way.”
Clarke’s sharp blue eyes noticed a nurse returning a pair of scissors to a drawer. Opportunity had again met preparation. Clarke wheeled over to the cabinet, got the scissors out, and cut the strap.
“Being in the wheelchair was probably the worst time of all,” she said. “I felt like I might never get out of that thing. If I could, I would have gone through more physical therapy than I did, and done it more quickly.”
After some of her mobility was restored, Clarke had surgery to repair vision damage she sustained in the accident.
When she finally came home, her picture of McMahan was on the refrigerator, just where she had left it.
“That was definitely a positive thing to see,” she said.
One of the first things Clarke did was pick up a camera and start taking photographs. She used it as part of her physical therapy.
“I had forgotten how heavy the cameras and equipment were,” she said. “It reminded me of why chiropractors like photographers so much.”
I just said, ‘I’m done, aren’t I?’ Jenny’s (UT trainer Jenny Moshak) eyes teared up. And with that eye contact, we both knew.
Photo by Cathy Clarke // Buy this photo
In May 2007, McMahan’s mother died from the cancer she had fought since Cait was 5 years old.
McMahan continued to struggle in basketball.
“I took the shots, I did the extra rehab, I wore the knee brace,” McMahan said. “And I took the pain. The pain wasn’t the problem. It was that my knee could give out at any time.”
The end came in her junior year, January 2009. She went down swinging.
In one day of practice, her knee failed her three times.
She looked up at Moshak. “I just said, ‘I’m done, aren’t I?’ ” she recalled. “Jenny’s eyes teared up. And with that eye contact, we both knew.”
“When she uttered those words, I saw that she had come to a closure,” Moshak said. “The wall had just become too high for her to climb.”
McMahan had now lost the two most important things in her life: her mother and basketball. The coaching staff promptly made her a student manager for the team.
But sitting and watching others play was too hard for her to take. By the end of that season, she decided she had to just walk away from it all.
But that meant she had to tell Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. McMahan felt some trepidation before that meeting. But Summitt understood and said she respects McMahan and her decision.
“She hadn’t quit; there was no quit in Cait McMahan,” Summitt said. “Given all that she had been through, with her mother and her injuries, it had come to ‘enough is enough,’ and it was the best thing for her to just step back. I’m sure that was very difficult for her.”
For a few days after that, McMahan recalls, “I felt lost, lost and alone.”
But she had prayed about her decision, talked it over with friends. She quickly came to peace with it.
“There was not one part of me that wanted to hang around,” she said. “My senior year, I had the experience of just being a regular student. Sometimes when things go bad, you just have to move on, and you can’t look back.”
As time passes, the picture that Clarke made comes to mean more and more to McMahan.
“Twenty years from now, it will have even greater value to me,” she said. “It would be great to show that picture to my kids and tell them how much the game meant to me.”
Today, McMahan gives basketball lessons to kids and is pursuing a career as a hip-hop composer and performer. She has had some success and is weighing offers from recording firms and distributors.
Sometimes she will play in a light pickup game with friends. But she still has to be careful with her knee. “It could go out when I’m jiving,” she said. She ices it down after dance rehearsals.
One of the songs she has written and recorded is about her mom’s battle with cancer. It is titled “It’s Not Over.”
Those words could also be the title to Clarke’s story.
Being back down on the floor with the other photographers, that was great.
In January, Lady Vols Media Relations Director Deborah Jennings offered Clarke a media pass to the Lady Vols game with Vanderbilt University. Clarke jumped at the chance.
“Being back down on the floor with the other photographers, that was great,” Clarke said.
“We worked hard to help Cathy get up and down from her sitting position and kept her out of harm’s way,” said freelance photographer Patrick Murphy-Racey. “She really enjoyed being down on the court again. It was a big boost to her spirit.”
Today, when Clarke attends UT games as a fan, she also watches the photographers when a big play is about to break. She looks to see if they are anticipating it and getting into position.
“You can tell by the looks on their faces if they got the shot or not,” she said.
Though Clarke hopes to again shoot sports professionally, sports is not the only thing she photographs. She continues with her physical therapy. And she often makes it a point to walk up stairs even if an elevator is available.
She and DeVore have discussed setting up a website so that her family and friends — and the public — can readily access her pictures. DeVore has made inquiries with some of their tech-savvy friends.
“So it’s not over for her,” DeVore said. “It is definitely not over.”
Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6357.