08/09/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
One moment, all was well for Tammy Crow: The synchronized swimmer was behind the wheel of an SUV, driving to a ski resort in the High Sierras. Next to her that frigid morning in February 2003 was the love of her life, Cody Tatro, a physical education teacher. In the backseat was 12-year-old Brett Slinger, one of his favorite students.
In the next moment, all was hell: Crow lost control of the vehicle and slammed into two towering pine trees. Tatro was dead. Slinger was dead. Crow was alive but badly battered.
"The first couple months, I wished I'd died with Cody," says Crow, 27, who will be headed to the Olympics in August and who had planned to marry Tatro, 26, after the Games. Her injuries, a shattered right arm and a cracked vertebra, initially seemed severe enough to threaten her ability to compete. "But I came to realize that giving up the dream isn't the reason I lived through this accident. I wanted to make my life, that was somehow spared, worthwhile."
Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost apparently agreed. After the Santa Clara, Calif., athlete pleaded no contest to two counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in January, Provost sentenced her to 90 days in jail—but ruled that she could begin serving the time on Oct. 25. The U.S. Olympic Committee also cleared her to compete.
The judge's decision—as well as Crow's subsequent appeal of the sentence—have added to the anguish felt by Brett Slinger's family. "I don't think justice has been done," says Mike Slinger, 43, whose older son—a popular, athletic seventh grader—was buried in his baseball uniform. "Tammy has shown little or no remorse. When you look at the pictures of the crash, and realize how fast she must've been going, it's very difficult when she says she has no responsibility."
California Highway Patrol officer Rick Thoma, who arrived at the scene minutes after the 7:25 a.m. crash, says that based on the evidence at the scene, Crow could have been going 55 to 60 mph on a road whose posted limit of 65 mph was not intended for the slippery conditions. "In my opinion she was driving way too fast," Thoma says of Crow, who had two prior speeding tickets and whose license was suspended in July 2003 as a result of the crash. He also noted in his report that he detected the faint odor of alcohol on her breath. "I think she was impaired to drive to some degree due to alcohol or fatigue," says Thoma, who has pronounced himself "fairly satisfied" with Crow's sentence but believes she should have served it immediately.
Crow adamantly denies speeding. But by her own admission she climbed behind the wheel of Tatro's Nissan Pathfinder shortly after 5 a.m. that morning following the couple's late-night celebration of her birthday and those of two of her teammates in San Francisco. Even though it was Tatro who agreed to give his student a lift to join his family at the Dodge Ridge ski resort, Crow assumed she'd end up driving, as she often did. She says she took a three-hour nap that afternoon and limited herself to three drinks at the party. (Based on a test 2 hours and 15 minutes after the crash that showed Crow with a blood alcohol level of .02, D.A. Jim Newkirk estimated her level as high as .06 at the time of the accident, below California's legal limit of .08.) "I'm terribly sorry, and I feel horrible for what happened," says Crow, who has been paying Slinger's family $50 restitution per month (toward the court-ordered total of $23,000). "But it was an accident."
The mother of the man Crow planned to marry has slowly come around to that point of view. "First I thought, I can't believe my son is dead and she's walking around," says Cody's mother, Mary Tatro, 51, who prior to the sentencing sent a letter to Judge Provost that in part blasted Tammy. "Truthfully, I don't feel she feels my pain," she wrote, "or fully understands the pain and horror she has inflicted on both of our families." Since then, explains Tatro, she's decided she would "rather accept love from Tammy than to live with anger and bitterness."
Eventually Mary joined her surviving son Chris, 29, Crow's mother Caroline, 55, and teammates in trying to keep up her spirits during her grueling physical rehab and struggle to secure one of the final spots on the nine-member Olympic squad. "I think there were days she wanted to curl up in a ball and cry all day," says Lauren McFall, 24, Tammy's friend and team captain. "We're such a close-knit group. We were aware that the pool and training was the thing that was going to make her feel alive again."
And so on Aug. 5 Tammy Crow plans to fly off to Athens with the rest of the U.S. Synchronized Swim Team, making good on the goal she announced as a 7-year-old. Brett Slinger's parents don't know if they and his brother Kyle, 11, will have the heart to watch the Olympics at all. "It's a difficult decision," says Mike Slinger, who took his family to the Salt Lake City Games two years ago. Adds his wife, Devon: "We met some of the bronze medal winners in Salt Lake. Those were people our kids looked up to. But now I think we think differently about how these athletes are chosen."
By Pam Lambert. Ken Lee in Los Angeles