Below is a story that was feature on St. Ambrose University’s website. This month it was announced that I will be their commencement speaker in May. I am looking forward to returning to the Quad Cities to share in the joy of the families of the graduates at St. Ambrose.

A Story to Rival “Rudy” by Craig DeVrieze

Ranked among the most inspirational sports movies ever made,Rudy was filmed on the University of Notre Dame campus while Haley Scott DeMaria was a student there in the fall of 1992.

“That was the first I knew of that story,” DeMaria said of the true tale of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a determined underdog who battled overwhelming odds to earn his way into the university and onto the football field at Notre Dame Stadium for three plays at the end of the 1975 Fighting Irish season.

DeMaria knows plenty about overcoming overwhelming odds herself. In fact, she was living her own no-less inspirational story even as the cameras were rolling for Rudy.

She will share much of that story as the speaker for the St. Ambrose University Spring 2015 Commencement on May 9.  The ceremony will begin at 1 p.m. at the iWireless Center in Moline, Ill. A total of 680 degrees are to be conferred. DeMaria will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Now a 41-year-old married mother of two sons, DeMaria was an 18-year-old first-year student and Olympic-caliber swimmer when, on the night of Jan. 24, 1992, a bus carrying the Notre Dame women’s swim team home from a meet near Chicago veered off an ice-covered interstate and overturned two miles from campus.

Her friends and fellow freshmen Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp were killed in the accident. DeMaria was thrown around the bus’ interior before winding up next to an open window. She pulled herself out and, for an hour, lay immobile on her back in the snow.

Several hours later, the first of what would be five harrowing surgeries was performed on her broken spine at a South Bend, Ind., hospital. After the first surgery, doctors informed the world-class swimmer that if she were able to walk again she never would swim in competition.

On Sept. 12, 1992, DeMaria walked onto the football field where Rudy once played. A crowd of nearly 60,000 assembled for the Fighting Irish football season opener applauded in earnest as DeMaria was presented the Maxwell House Spirit of Notre Dame Award.

On Oct. 29, 1993, two weeks after Rudy debuted in theaters, DeMaria dove into a pool at Notre Dame’s Rolf Aquatic Center for a 50-meter freestyle heat. She finished first with a career-best time.

What Though The Odds is both a line in the famed Notre Dame Victory March and the pitch-perfect title of DeMaria’s 2008 autobiography.  Yet, in the aftermath of the bus accident and the ensuing rehabilitation, DeMaria conceded she never gave much consideration to how great or small the odds stacked against her may have been.

“I don’t think I had any idea how serious it was at the time,” she said. “I think part of that is your mind protects you. And I think part of it was being naive and 18. But I had also spent 10 years at that time as a pretty fierce competitor and, in that sense, I had all the tools I needed to do what I had to do.”

DeMaria said she also was “stubborn and just wanted to get back to being a normal college student,” but a much more somber motivation drove her as well — the deaths of Beeler and Hipp. “It was really when I learned of their passing that I knew I had to walk and I knew I had to swim,” she said. “And I had to do it for them because they couldn’t.”

In 2012, DeMaria again found herself at the center of Notre Dame Stadium, where she delivered the commencement address to a new group of fellow alums. “That’s probably as good as it gets for anyone, to be invited back to speak at their alma mater,” she said.

Interestingly, she told the graduates that chief among the lessons she had learned through her experience was that there is value in accepting things that can’t be changed.

“I had been told I wouldn’t walk,” she told the graduates. “I did. I was told I’d never swim again. I did. I was told I’d be in the hospital up to a year learning to walk again. It was just a few months. I was told I would never be as fast a swimmer as I was before. And I wasn’t.”

DeMaria laughed a bit with the audience at the latter, but she reiterated in a recent interview that perhaps the biggest challenge of her recovery was learning to accept that her life was forever altered. Although she remained on the swim team throughout her college career, that first heat on return to the pool was the last race she ever won.

“That was where the greatest struggle came because I did love being in the pool,” she said. “I did love swimming and competing and yet it was a daily reminder that I wasn’t who I had been.”

Through the years, DeMaria has learned to embrace who she has become and to celebrate the gifts she has been given. She carried the Olympic torch on its way to Atlanta in 1996 — “My small way of being part of the Olympics,” she said. She married the former Fighting Irish swim team manager, Jamie DeMaria, and in 2000 gave birth to their two sons, despite initial post-accident prognoses that she might be unable to conceive.

The 2008 publication of What Though The Odds reinforced for DeMaria the power of her story, one she looks forward to sharing again with the SAU Class of 2015 — although she stressed her belief that every graduating class deserves its own unique message. Toward that end, DeMaria has been researching St. Ambrose and has been pleased to discover the smaller university has much in common with the greater Notre Dame community that helped her heal nearly a quarter century ago.

“I have become such a fan of not only of a Catholic education, but of living, working and learning in a community of faith,” she said. “That is so essential to not only learning academically but also learning who we want to be.”

One thing DeMaria is about to be is the subject of a movie. Currently in pre-production, it soon will become only the third movie filmed on the Notre Dame campus, following Knute Rockne: All-American and, of course, Rudy.