Speaker is 'Living Proof' of what can happen when one drinks, drives

Sarah Panzau had it all -- a promising college career and a passion for spiking volleyballs.

Then, the two-time All-American made a wrong choice.

The Illinois native, then 21, got behind the wheel of her Saturn after downing several alcoholic drinks at a bar.

"My car flipped four times, and I was ejected out the back windshield," Panzau said Saturday during a telephone interview. "I had no seat belt on. My blood alcohol level was a .308."

Hoping others can learn from her mistake, Panzau will share her story, dubbed "Living Proof," this week to students at Winthrop University and at high schools in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Lancaster and York. She also will speak on WRHI's "Straight Talk" program at 12:30 p.m. Monday.

"Living Proof" is sponsored by B&B Distributors and Anheuser-Busch.

"Sarah's story, while gut-wrenching, is such a powerful example," said Linda Bridges, vice president of B&B Distributors. "Her message truly resonates with the students because she's young and was active and popular in school. When she tells them to make good decisions, to think before they act, to not drink when underage and never drink and drive ... they seem to hear it clearly."

Drinking and driving cost Panzau.

Her left arm was ripped off, and her body was riddled with scars as a result of the near-fatal wreck. Now, the 26-year-old has one mission: save lives.

"By telling my story, I'm teaching people this could possibly happen to them," she said.

Changing course

Panzau spiked her first volleyball when she was in the sixth grade. She spent about seven years perfecting her game before going off to college. Then, her life plan was marred with bad choices that started when she dropped out of college after her sophomore year, she said.

"I decided that school was too hard, and I didn't want to focus on that," she said. "I made poor choices. I look back and think, 'What was I thinking?'"

Instead, the 19-year-old embarked on a career as a bartender.

"That's when drinking became a problem," she said. "I started abusing the notion of, I was a bartender, and I could drink. It became a part of my job."

But drinking nearly cost Panzau her life.

On Aug. 23, 2003, Panzau went to a baseball game with some friends. After the game, the group returned to the bar where she worked.

"We sat there at the bar and drank until about 4 a.m." Panzau said. "I had been drinking heavily all night long."

Panzau left the bar around 4 a.m. She didn't think about whether she should drive her car, she said.

"I just grabbed my keys and got in my vehicle and decided to drive home," Panzau said. "I made it 14 miles, and that's when my wreck happened."

No chance

Because of her injuries in the wreck, Panzau "was given a zero percent chance of survival," she said.

During her talk in Rock Hill, she'll wear a tank top and shorts so her audience can see the scars on her back and legs.

Panzau, who didn't know the extent of her injuries, was put in a drug-induced coma, she said.

"My family had to tell me three times that I lost my left arm," she said. "I was on such high-dosage of pain medication. I wasn't understanding what had happened."

Panzau's earliest memory of the accident came nearly four weeks after the wreck, she said.

"It was a drunk-driving accident," Panzau said. "At the time, all I could do was cry. This was happening because it was my fault."

But a determined Panzau never felt sorry for herself. Instead, she vowed to recover and press on with her life. In 2005, she was invited to try out for the U.S. Women's Paralympic Sitting Volleyball Team. She made the team and played for a 18 months before retiring her jersey because of injuries to her right shoulder and left knee.

Now, she's a full-time advocate who educates others on the consequences of their bad choices.

"I plead with the students that if they made the first poor choice to drink underage, then not to make the second poor choice to drive," she said.

She hopes her life story will save someone from making bad choices.

"When I was released from the hospital, I had a hard time dealing with my appearance, the scars, the loss of my arm, what I'd done to myself," Panzau said. "To say that I went through hell is an understatement."

But her journey has been worth it, she said.

"I would go through my crash all over again to be who I am today and to ultimately impact and save lives along the way," she said.