Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of five stories highlighting some of the most-read stories in the Times Observer during the past year. Today’s series focuses on area residents who made headlines for the right reasons.
The tears on a sunny Saturday in September in Sheffield had nothing to do with allergies.
The sight of Alexa Whipple, a Sheffield cheerleader who survived a tragic car accident, left everyone’s eyes misty in late September.
In December 2019, Alexa was a passenger in an automobile accident that took the life of her mother Jessica Camp and Stephen Rothrauff. Whipple was ejected from the vehicle upon impact, suffering serious injuries that resulted in the then 15-year-old to be airlifted to a Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Alexa spent five days in a coma, had a torn aorta, shattered pelvis, defusal axonal injury and a brain injury.
She made it through surgeries, CT scans, MRIs, X-Rays, ultrasounds, ups and downs, steps forward and steps backward, laughter and tears. While many of her friends and classmates went about their lives, she was forced to watch, to work and to wait.
After one year, eight months and 17 days, Whipple received approval from her doctor to return to contact sports without restriction. Now, it was a matter of going through a standard physical like any other teenage athlete. The final approval came only two days before the Sept. 18 game.
Just minutes prior to kickoff, approximately 8 miles down the road from where her life changed course forever, on a partly sunny Saturday afternoon, at the northwest end zone of Sheffield’s football field with the Wolverine football team in the background and her cheerleading teammates across from her, Alexa Whipple was welcomed back.
Back as an active participant. Back as an athlete. Back where she belonged.
“I was really happy. Nervous … I don’t know,” said Whipple. “It just made me feel warm inside. I was shaking really bad and crying. There are definitely incredible people in this town. It’s crazy whenever you’re seeing it for other people and you’re like, ‘Oh that’s not huge,’ but then whenever it happens to you, you can see how big the support is.”
A DETERMINED HIKER
Christian Hunter has succeeded at a task typically completed by about 25% of those who try — a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
He preferred to hike by himself — waking up each day at 5 a.m. and hitting the trail by 5:40 a.m. He avoided some of the shortcuts — slackpacking, for example, where a hostel will provide shuttles that allow them to hike the trail but do so without their pack.
His wildlife exposure was limited to a moose in Maine, six black bears in New York, a rattlesnake in Virginia and a few deer.
“It was still awesome being outdoors all the time and to start in the spring, see everything bud and get green into the summer months,” he said. That optimism survived two 20-degree nights in North Carolina, a morning with snow in Tennessee and a heat wave when passing through Pennsylvania.
“I carried anywhere from three to five days of food. At 20 miles hiking a day, it would be 60 to 100 miles before I would have to resupply with food,” he explained. “Basically, I was walking around the woods for a few days, then hitchhike back into town and get more food.
The enormity of the challenge did result in Hunter losing 13 pounds from beginning to end.
His most favorite state was Tennessee.
“It had awesome views on the ridges, the Smoky Mountains were incredible, and there was always a stream nearby to get water,” he said.
Hunter acknowledged completing the thru-hike is “uncommon” but “not anything extraordinary.”
“God blessed me with the day, and then it was up to me to put in work and miles. After committing myself to the goal, a few months later I had hiked from Georgia to Maine. About 300 hundred people finish the whole hike every year. I was one of 300.
“A Warren county resident was one of the Appalachian Trail finishers this year though.”
Question: This Jeopardy winner is a Warren native.
The answer: “Who is Katie Sekelsky.”
In 2004, Sekelsky, then with the Warren Area High School marching band, announced a goal to some day be on Jeopardy! That dream came true earlier this year.
“My parents are the reason that I’ve watched Jeopardy since I was so young,” she said. “They are also regulars at bar trivia.”
Tom and Shari Sekelsky have participated in the Warren Public Library’s Trivia Nights “and they have won,” she said.
In Katie’s case, trivia is an outlet.
“I’ve always had a good memory for facts,” she said. “I’ve also always had a competitive spirit.”
“I’m no athlete,” she said. “That rush of adrenaline that others might get from participating in a sport I get from being able to correctly recall information.”
Sekelsky ended up appearing on four episodes, winning $37,899.
Sekelsky will forever occupy a niche in Jeopardy-related trivia. Her first episode was guest host Mayim Bialik’s final show. Guest host Savannah Guthrie’s first episode was Sekelsky’s second.
“I have the distinction of being the only person to be on Jeopardy with two different female hosts,” she said.
There was plenty of support for Sekelsky in her home of Kent, Ohio, and around her former home of Warren. She also hosted a watch party of 14 people — an interesting experience. She had the ability to give spoilers at every turn.
“My dad and several of his siblings got special permission to watch with my grandmother at the Lutheran Home in Kane,” she said. “They watched with my grandmother twice.”