Venice teen stays positive after boating tragedy

VENICE, Fla. -- Less than a month ago, 16-year-old Rachel Nowak lost her hand in a boating accident on Roberts Bay.

The cheerleader was heading out on a personal watercraft to go tubing and was sitting behind the driver and a friend. But when the boat picked up speed, disaster struck. What has happened since that terrible accident will amaze you.

It was just 3 weeks ago that she lost her hand. When she fell off the watercraft, a rope attached to the tube they were towing tangled around her hand. "It just pulled me in the water…I just pulled off the ropes with the jet ski still going, that's when it ripped off."

She told ABC 7 that when she surfaced and saw her injury, her first thought was about cheerleading. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I'm not going to be able to cheer again.”

She was always smiling, upbeat, and positive in the hospital, but cheerleading was the first thing she asked about after surgery. "She came out of recovery, she was back in the room, and that was the first thing she said. ‘Can I cheer?’ And the surgeon said it'll probably be about a year before she can start tumbling,” says her mother, Mimi Nowak.

Rachel has been in gymnastics since she was nine years old. Cheering with the St. Pete competitive all-star team called "Airs" is her greatest joy.

Nine days after the accident, doctors allowed her to go watch -- only watch -- a practice. Her coach worked with her a little and they were shocked by what happened. “The first trick I was so happy, I wanted to cry. It was amazing."

Her medical team cheered when they saw the video. "They couldn't believe the will power and courage of this young lady," says Mimi.

Rachel hopes to get a new prosthetic hand in about a month. A few days ago, she visited Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail that starred in the movie A Dolphin's Tale for inspiration. "It was sort of like the same accident; she was tied up in ropes, and I was tied up in ropes. We have the same story."

Friends, family, and more than 7,000 well-wishers on Instagram are surrounding Rachel with love and support.

She says she's learned a great lesson. "I've learned from all this, don't let anything hold you back; to pursue what you still want. Don't let anything hold you back.”

And she hopes to incorporate this lesson into her life work.

Meanwhile the Venice High junior is concentrating on becoming a champion cheerleader.