MISSOULA — It was hard to miss the bruises that dotted Grace Lowder two winters ago at a Montana Volleyball Academy practice.
The marks were a physical reminder to her teammates and coaches of what she had endured less than two weeks earlier. She had a broken back, a punctured lung and some cracked ribs. No doubt it hurt Lowder to return to the volleyball court so soon.
"I was asking our club director, ‘Are we sure that she’s OK to come back?,’" then-MVA coach Bryce Wilson said. "A few drills initially, she couldn’t dive, but she came and did what she could and slowly progressed into getting back full time.
"It was kind of a shock how quickly she was cleared to come back."
But getting back in the gym and back to normalcy was what Lowder really needed to heal. The car crash responsible for her physical ailments left a wound that couldn't be seen. It's one that remains with Lowder, now in her senior season at Missoula Big Sky.
The accident took the life of her twin brother.
Arthur Butler Lowder's obituary indicated that he shared a bond with his sister, Grace, "only twins can know." Abe, as Arthur was known to his friends and family, was Grace's older brother by a few minutes.
But their mom, Ann, said Grace always played the role of the big sister.
"(Grace) had a boyfriend once; he was at a soccer game and he was a football player in Frenchtown and he’d come around for a while," Ann said. "Once Abe did something (Grace) didn’t like and she just picked Abe up and dropped him right on his head, and we never saw the (boyfriend) again.
"He was outta there; he’s like, 'I don’t know about this girl, she’s much stronger than I am,'" Ann added, laughing.
On the night of the crash, Grace — acting big sister — was driving. Abe was buckled in beside her. They were returning from church.
"After the message (at youth group), we always listen to a song to refocus and he was really into it and I remember looking down at him and he was on the side of me and I remember he looked so peaceful," Grace said. "I had never seen that side of him. I had never seen his spiritual side, even though I knew it was there.
"... (When) we got into the car, he wanted to go the long way home because he had more music to show me."
It was Jan. 6, 2016. The roads were icy. Abe was acting goofy, "living life to the fullest," his sister said. He rolled the window down and hollered along with the song.
"... It started bothering me because there was so much ice and everything. So I went to grab him with (my right) hand and I turned my car (right with my left hand) and I went on to the rumble strip. The rumble strip was really icy," Grace said.
The car swerved and eventually veered into an irrigation ditch on U.S. Highway 93, just in front of Fred's Appliance. They were both wearing their seat belts, but they landed hard.
"I remember leaving the ground and knowing I was going to hit the ground and then the sound of glass shattering," Lowder recalled. "It was weird. There was a feeling of warmth on my legs ... I had a friend who was driving behind us — that’s how we got help — and I just asked him once, 'Hey, was there anything on my legs that was warm?' And Abe was on my legs.
"That was the last feeling I ever had, that warmth feeling."
After the accident, Grace transferred schools from Valley Christian to Big Sky. Her brother had attended the Class AA school, where he ran cross country, wearing a bevy of silly socks his teammates still talk about. The staff at Big Sky had helped Grace's older siblings through some difficult times, and the Lowder family appreciated the atmosphere.
"We’ve just been helped tremendously by the community; by a great network of friends, our church, Big Sky High School," Grace's dad, Jay, said. "We can’t say enough good things about the administration, the staff, the coaches at Big Sky; they’ve really been great."
One of those instructors was then-volleyball coach Amy Roberts. She knew she was inheriting a fiery competitor that could eventually help the Eagles push for a state appearance. Lowder was a surgeon from the service line and she often served as the second punch of a 1-2 attack with Cheyenne Jones, now at the University of Texas El Paso.
"I knew about Grace, I knew about her accident, but I didn’t let on that I did until she was ready to talk about it," Roberts said. "She finally told me that her back was still broken, so as a coach, every time she hits the ground you think, ‘OK, that had to hurt.’
"(But) I have to go on and think about the fact that she’s in charge of her own pain."
Grace managed the hurt on the court with a dogged determination, illustrated by her lofty goals after high school (she hopes to triple major in anthropology, criminology and psychology, and eventually work for the FBI). That focus got her playing time in the first place.
"She kind of had a hurdle coming from Valley Christian. They play Class C volleyball," Ann explained. "She really, really badly wanted to play varsity at (Class AA) Big Sky and a friend that we knew at church said, ‘Grace, there’s no way you could ever make it.'
"Oh my goodness, then she started lifting weights, then she started practicing, playing MVA, she started playing in any league that was open. ... Whatever Grace decides to do, Grace does. That’s the way she’s always rolled."
Broken bones weren't going to slow her down. But the emotional weight of the tragedy was the real worry for Grace's parents.
She and her family went to therapy, though Ann said she feels Grace just goes to make everyone else feel better. Grace said it took a while for the loss to really sink in.
"It was a very rough time, but I was also very numb to the emotion of everything that was going on."
That emotion came out one night on the volleyball court.
In the middle of her junior season, Big Sky had an "Abe game" where the team wore special shirts and played for Abe.
"That’s when all of my numbness started wearing off and it wasn’t so numb anymore," Grace said. "It was like real emotion; real raw emotion."
Volleyball provided a healing she couldn't find anywhere else.
"To be able to put emotion in volleyball, I like to separate those things," she said. "But sometimes my emotion comes out in volleyball, and it was a good release for me."
And along with her faith, she continued to grow.
Now in her senior year, Lowder and the Eagles are on the precipice of their first Class AA state tourney berth in a decade. While statistically she leads Big Sky in serving ace percentage alone, she provides a spark to her teammates each time she's on the court.
"I love standing next to her at the front row on the net," her middle blocker and longtime friend Brooke Kearns said. "When we go to block together, I love it, it’s exciting."
With only a small scar remaining on her hand from the accident, now almost two years ago, you'd hardly know what Grace is missing.
But in a way, her twin brother is still there, especially when she takes the court.
"He was always that No. 1 fan ... I could just look at him and he’d be (giving me a look)," she said, making a face to mimic her brother. "I feel him all the time. There’s not a time where I go on the volleyball court and he’s not there.
"He will always be a part of me and he’s a big part of me. He was my other half. You just don’t get away from that."