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'Sarah's story' hits on tough issues for high school students

Sarah Panzau talks to Bemidji High School students on making smart choices. Panzau was an outstanding high school and collegiate athlete who turned to drugs and alcohol. After she was in an almost-fatal car crash, Panzau decided to become an inspirational speaker. Now, she speaks to students about underage drinking, drunk driving, making smart choices, respecting parents and rising above disabilities. The presentation was sponsored by Big North Distributing. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Sarah Panzau, 28, of Belleville, Ill., lived her early years of college as if she were immortal.

She was a two-time member of the national Junior College Athlete Association women's volleyball all-American team, who decided to turn to drugs, alcohol and the "party crowd."

On Aug. 23, 2003, 21-year-old Panzau attempted to drive herself home with a blood-alcohol level nearly four times the legal limit.

She missed a highway exit and rolled her car four times. Without a seat belt, she was ejected through the rear window of her car, her left arm was torn from her body and she was thrown onto the roadway.

On Monday morning, wearing shorts and a white tank top, Panzau shared her story with students at Bemidji High School. She described herself as living proof that poor choices can have drastic consequences.

"That day, my left arm ripped off my body. I had no heart beat, no pulse and I fractured almost every vertebra in my back," said Panzau. "We live like we are immortal. This was never supposed to happen to me."

Big North Distributing, Inc., a distributor of Anheuser-Busch, sponsored Panzau's talk as part of an effort to help students make smart, safe choices.

"Anheuser-Busch and Big North Distributing make it a high priority to make sure youth are educated in responsibility," said Shelly Baker, corporate social responsibility coordinator at Big North Distributing.

After being in a coma for two and a half weeks, Panzau awoke with her mouth wired shut. She saw her mother, who was crying, sitting at her bed side.

On a piece of notebook paper, Panzau wrote, "Crying?" and handed it to her mother.

Her mother responded by asking her, "Why didn't you call me?"

Panzau pointed out that most high school students fear asking their parents for help because they fear facing a harsh punishment or causing disappointment in them.

"What my mother went through was my worst nightmare," Panzau said. "Two Illinois state policemen knocked on her door the morning of my crash and asked her identify her daughter's body, which they presumed was dead."

She told students to gain the courage to stand up and call their parents if they are in an unsafe situation and need help.

"My friends who I was with that night were not my true friends. My mother never left my side," she said.

Since Panzaus' crash in 2003, her life has taken a new direction. She has reached students at middle and high schools and at colleges, with her message about underage drinking, drunk driving, making smart choices, respecting parents and rising above disabilities.

"I thought she was incredible," said BHS principal Brian Stefanich. "She was very dynamic when she spoke of her real life story. I liked her piece about calling your parents if you were in trouble. I think students need to have that relationship with their parents."

Despite the crash and her loss of an arm, Panzau was able to represent her country by playing volleyball on the USA Women's Sitting Volleyball Team.

Sitting volleyball is played with athletes sitting on the floor. All team members have some type of disability to their lower body. The net is about three feet high and the court is 10 meters by 6 meters with a 2-meter attack line.

Panzau toured internationally, competing in the World Championships, until the injuries she suffered from her crash compromised her health and forced her to give up the sport.

At the end of her talk, Panzau received a standing ovation from the students in the auditorium.

"If you can bring high school students to a standing ovation you've done something right," said Panzau.

For Panzau, the feedback is therapy.

"I deal with chronic pain," Panzau said. "I hurt every single day. I know by doing this and seeing the reactions I get, that I know that everything I've gone through was for a good reason."

Panzau said in the future she will continue to speak to high school and college students for as long as she makes an impact on them. She also said she wants to someday coach other people with a story similar to hers to speak in front of large groups.

"I want to find other speakers out there like me that have a story to tell, who have made poor choices and had to learn the hard way like I did," she said.

Panzau's story is online at