Owen High School junior Chesney Gardner is a star on the girls basketball team just six years after being in a car accident that left her temporarily paralyzed on one side and claimed the life of her friend, then Owen freshman Kori Goodson. Angeli Wrightemail@example.com
SWANNANOA - Chesney Gardner opens the door to her bedroom closet and grabs a shoe box wrapped in duct tape from the top shelf.
She sits on the edge of her bed and carefully unloads the contents. Homemade yarn bracelets. A sheet of paper with lyrics to a Tim McGraw song. A hospital bracelet.
The remaining items from a friendship ended far too soon.
“Sometimes looking back at those things, it doesn’t make me sad,” Gardner said. “It makes me feel like she’s still with me.”
On March 2, 2012, Gardner, then 11, was involved in a car accident near Madison High School that took the life of her 14-year-old best friend, Kori Goodson.
The two were on the way back from horse riding practice, when a Dodge pickup struck the passenger side door of their vehicle where Goodson, a freshman at Owen High School, was sitting. She was declared dead at the scene.
Gardner’s memory of the accident is scattered. She woke up in a hospital bed with severe injuries to her lower body, spine and brain.
It took her parents three days to break the news of Goodson’s death.
“She kept asking for her phone because she wanted to text Kori and find out how bad she was hurt,” said Monica Gardner, Chesney’s mother. “We had to tell her Kori was gone. I think, in a way, she already knew. But it was one of the hardest things you could ever have to tell your child.”
Nearly six years later, Chesney continues to live with a reality that shook the Black Mountain community and left a beloved family without a daughter and a sister. But through the pain, Chesney found strength in sports. An outlet to help honor her friend.
“I always play for Kori,” Chesney said.
Survival and strength
The final school bell rings at Owen High as Chesney walks around the side of the campus on her way to basketball practice. Now a junior, Chesney has become one of the top players in WNC. In December, she scored her 1,000th career point in a win against Hendersonville.
Before she reaches the gym door, Chesney stops at a small garden and stares at a large stone sitting in front of three small red bud trees. A marble plaque placed next to the rock reads, “In loving memory of Kori Nicole Goodson.”
“Everytime I pass by her garden, I just think about how she’s looking down at me,” Chesney said.
After Kori's death, the school built a memorial garden in her honor. A funeral service was held at the high school. It was standing room only.
“There was a tremendous outpour for the family,” said Chasity Simpson, an assistant basketball coach at the high school. “It was a very sad situation, but it was also a way to show her family how much people cared for Kori.”
Chesney remained in the hospital, but her mother, and father, Matthew Gardner, sat in the front row during the service.
“You feel so guilty,” Matthew said. "We have our daughter, and they don’t have theirs. I hate it. It’s a terrible feeling. But they (the Goodsons) were so good to us. They kept telling us how happy they were that Chesney was OK. They showed a strength I don’t think I could’ve had.”
Chesney began to show her strength after the accident.
Despite a broken hip, fractured pelvis, a ruptured bladder and a spinal fracture that left her temporarily paralyzed on one side of her body, she was released from the hospital in five days after doctors first feared she may never walk again.
Her father built a wheelchair ramp into their home, and she made the living room a recovery space. She was unable to walk for more than two months, but kind letters from classmates and homemade dishes from community members fueled her recovery and her drive.
“I learned perseverance,” Chesney said. “That no matter what you go through, you have to keep living. I was so lucky to still be here. I had to keep moving.”
The pain from her injuries remained.
“There were times where I’d have to pick her up off the floor (during a sporting event) because she would be in so much pain,” Matthew said. “But no matter what, she always wanted to go back in.”
As soon as she was able, Chesney began playing sports again. Before every middle school basketball game, she would scribble Kori’s name on her arm. She picked the jersey No. 13 in honor of Kori’s No. 3 she wore as a soccer player. Chesney now plays soccer for Owen.
Kori’s mother, Debbie Goodson, still watches the Owen soccer games. Afterward, she hugs Chesney like she would her own daughter.
“She’s always been so amazing to me,” Chesney said.
On Veterans Day last year, Chesney walked through Sky View Memorial Park cemetery with her father to pay respect to her grandfather. She suddenly realized she was close to where Kori was buried. She'd never visited her friend's tombstone.
Maybe it was guilt.
Before the accident, Chesney and Kori had playfully argued about who would get the window seat before they crammed into the front row of a Toyota pickup truck, driven by their horseback riding instructor, Sara Boelt.
Kori had won the argument, but a collision with another pickup at a highway intersection cost Kori her life.
"I know how easily it could've been me," Chesney said.
Chesney’s mother had visited Kori's grave every year on the anniversary of the wreck to lay flowers and stuffed animals around the tombstone. But Chesney had never been ready to go herself.
That day, she found herself searching for Kori.
As she walked through the freshly mowed cemetery grass, Chesney thought back to her favorite memories with Kori. Watching her first R-rated movie together, "Paranormal Activity." Chesney had been afraid to be alone for weeks after they watched it together.
She thought about sleepovers and going to Friday night football games together. Baking cookies and laughing over YouTube clips.
She was finally ready to say goodbye.
“I went and sat beside her,” said Chesney, as tears streamed down her face. “I told her that I missed her and that her horse – Caspian – was doing good. I was thinking how, if she was still here, she’d be riding. I sat there and thought about everything and how she impacted my life. I just wish I could see her again.”
'Here to do something special'
Monica Gardner sat with her head in her hands as she waited in her daughter's room at Mission Hospital. She had yet to hear the news about Kori and the extent of Chesney's injuries were still not clear.
A police officer came to her side and placed his hand on her shoulder. He had been one of the first to respond to the accident and had first called Monica.
He told her that Kori had died.
“I remember he looked at me and he was crying,” Monica said. “He told me that there was no scientific explanation as to why Chesney was still alive. He told me that he saw what she came out of. He told me that she was still here because she was meant to something special with her life."
Since the accident, Chesney has made the most of her second chance, particularly on the basketball court.
First-year basketball coach Aaron Hernandez calls her the "rock" of his team.
"Any time you have an experience like that, nothing on the court can match it," Hernandez said. "She has an incredible amount of drive to succeed."
Owen principal Meg Turner and Chesney have connected over their love of basketball. Turner was a standout player in Virginia, recently being named to the Virginia High School Girls Basketball Hall of Fame.
It was Turner's first year at the school when the wreck occurred. It created a sadness she'll never shake, but a connection with Chesney that will last a lifetime.
"I continue to marvel at the strength of young people," Turner said. "But she's not a normal kid. She was born with an incredible ability and desire to overcome and persevere. I would always want her on my team."