Earned Organic Armor Withstands 40 MPH Car Strike

By Andréa Maria Cecil – March 18th, 2018

Rileigh Denis’ husband believed he had just watched his wife get killed.

“I pretty much instantly arrived at the point where I was convinced she was dead.”

Seconds earlier, he had been walking no more than 2 feet behind Rileigh, to her right, while they crossed a 15-mph street in Siesta Key, Florida. The couple was in town from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to celebrate Fourth of July with friends. At that point, it was just after midnight on Independence Day. As the group of four walked, Rileigh turned her head over her right shoulder to smile at her husband. That’s when a car traveling about 40 mph swerved around a stopped car and into the crosswalk.

“I very distinctly remember the sound of the impact and of her hitting the ground about 20, 30 feet down the road,” her husband recounted. “I literally thought I was in a dream. I didn’t think what I had just seen (was real). Then I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way she could have lived through that.’”

The vehicle hit Rileigh on her left side. Her friend Ashley Hogan, who had also been walking behind Rileigh as they crossed the street, vividly remembered the moment of impact.

“She hit her head on the windshield, cracked the windshield, flew through the air—honestly, like a doll—and hit the pavement face down and wasn’t moving. I was 100 percent certain she was dead.”

A shocked Hogan sat on the sidewalk curb next to her friend’s body.

“I’m just sitting there watching her, waiting for her to move, something.”

Within three minutes, paramedics arrived.

There was hope: Rileigh was breathing.

Still, her husband and friends believed that even if she did survive, she would have countless broken bones and organ damage given the sheer impact on her 5-foot, 120-lb. frame.

“What’s the Damage?”

First responders rushed Rileigh to Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s ER, where she was admitted around 12:30 a.m. on July 4, 2016.

“I watched ’em roll her into the trauma bay, and I gave her a kiss and I said, ‘I love you,’ and I let them do their thing to stabilize her,” her husband remembered.

For nearly two hours, Rileigh’s husband and friends awaited a status report. Finally, a doctor emerged.

“What’s the damage?” her husband asked.

No broken bones. No severe injuries to the muscles or tissues, and nearly every organ unscathed. But hospital staff did find a small brain bleed.

Her husband’s response: “I was like, ‘How is that even possible? She got hit by a car going 40 miles an hour.’”

ALT TEXTIncredibly, Denis only spent two weeks in the hospital.

ALT TEXTThough she recovered quickly, Rileigh still lacks some feeling in her right leg.

Rileigh, now 29, recalls almost nothing about the incident.

“I don’t remember getting hit. I don’t remember the ambulance ride. I don’t remember being in the emergency room,” she said recently. “It took me almost a week to start recalling.”

She added: “There’s a lot that I don’t remember.”

After the accident, Rileigh spent the next two days intubated in the hospital’s ICU. When she regained consciousness, she had to learn how to walk again and undergo speech therapy to ensure her memory and cognition were intact. Although those impairments were temporary, others are permanent. She lacks 100 percent feeling in her right leg, for example. That condition is exacerbated by running, an activity that causes increased numbness and pain. Jumping rope is also painful.

All told, Rileigh spent two weeks in the Florida hospital learning how to function normally again. During that time, she used a walker to get around. Two days after she arrived home to North Carolina, she became pregnant.

“I’m very fortunate. The only aftermath is this right leg is numb.”

Stronger Than Death

Contained within Rileigh’s medical records from Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s ER were six words that explained her survival:

ALT TEXT“Patient is in excellent physical condition.”—Rileigh Denis’ medical records.

“Patient is in excellent physical condition.”

Medical staff told Rileigh the muscles covering her bones acted as organic armor, protecting her against kinetic trauma. She had spent years earning it.

Rileigh’s husband had introduced her to CrossFit in 2011, when the two were in college in West Virginia. She took to it immediately, abandoning her routine of running and “a bunch of cardio stuff” at the local globo gym.

“I became addicted,” she said.

In the years that followed, Rileigh kept training and began participating in local competitions monthly while at Iron Forged CrossFit in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“(I wasn’t) trying to make it to Regionals or anything,” she explained. “It was something I just enjoyed doing.”

That’s how she met Hogan, her friend who also was walking behind her in the early hours of July Fourth in Siesta Key.

“We didn’t really know each other for, maybe, the first year that I started CrossFit,” Hogan said. “And then somehow or another—I think it was the CrossFit Open of 2015; that was the first CrossFit Open I did—we became very good friends during that process. I ended up going to the competition side of the class, and me and her were basically workout partners every day.”

Still, Hogan, who now lives in Florida, is floored by Rileigh’s rate of recovery.

ALT TEXTDenis, 29, is now back in the gym.

“Honestly, I’m, like, completely shocked. She was in town … for Thanksgiving, so I just saw her a week ago today,” Hogan said in early December 2017.

During that time Rileigh expressed frustration.

“Ugh, I’m so annoyed, my front squat is only at 175,” Hogan quoted her friend as saying.

Hogan’s response: “Rileigh, you’re only 120 pounds and you just got hit by a car last year. That’s more than me.”

She jokingly added: “So I was annoyed because that’s more than me and I didn’t get hit by a car.”

Although Rileigh remains a competitor at heart, Hogan has noted a shift in her friend’s perspective.

“She’s thankful that she’s in the gym and that she’s walking.”

Hogan knows time in the gym helped Rileigh avoid death and additional injuries on July Fourth.

“It was amazing the (number) of doctors that said, ‘She’s in such good shape.’ If she wasn’t in such good shape, she would be in a different place right now.”

That fact is not lost on Rileigh, who said she harbors no anger toward the driver who hit her.

“My physical condition, literally, was one of the main things that saved me. Seriously,” she explained. “I was in really good physical shape, and it could have been a lot worse if I was just a sedentary individual.”

Editor’s note: The Journal is withholding Rileigh Denis’ husband’s name at his request.

About the Author: Andréa Maria Cecil is assistant managing editor and head writer of the CrossFit Journal.

All images: Courtesy of Rileigh Denis

This article was originally published on the CrossFit Journal. You can find it here.

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About The Author

Neil Scholtz

Neil Scholtz is a certified Personal Trainer turned CrossFit coach. He has competed at the CrossFit Games and coached athletes that have competed at the CrossFit Games, but that's not his main focus. Most of his time is spent consulting or coaching individuals to improve their lives through fitness. He has worked with over 1000 individuals from various walks of life. Tailoring solutions to their lifestyle needs.