Jaime Carnucci had jumped off the dock dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times before. Each time she’d come bobbing back to the surface for a gulp of air.

But this time Carnucci felt the impact on her head and her limbs go numb and she sank to the bottom. She could hear her friends’ voices above her, but she was helpless to cry out to them for help.

“I was walking down the dirt road when I started hearing people hollering to call 911,” said Carnucci’s husband, Frank Carnucci. “She could only move her shoulder. She couldn’t move anything below her waist at that point.”

Two months later and Carnucci, who earned a reputation as a driven, stubborn competitor during her playing days at Winthrop High School, is putting those qualities on full display once more as she struggles to recover from a broken neck. The grueling pace of her rehab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Mass., meant she wasn’t available to talk for this story. But her family and friends made up for it.

“All she wants to do is get home and take care of her children,” said Ray Convery, Carnucci’s basketball coach at Winthrop High. “Knowing Jaime, if it can be done, with her determination, she’ll do it.”

Her effort has spawned a support network that has spread up and down the East Coast, and even across the world. That network is bound together by Carnucci’s determination and the slogan it has spawned: Carnucci Strong.

“There are all kinds of people that follow Frank’s blog at night,” said Jaime Carnucci’s mom, Charle Clark of Winthrop. “I have people that stop me on the street and ask me how she is and I don’t even know who they are. It’s just been overwhelming.”

Carnucci, 37, graduated from Winthrop High in 1995. She was a three-sport athlete – field hockey in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring. Clark still fondly remembers the 4×400 team her daughter helped lead to the Mount Valley Conference record.

Convery recalled a strong-willed player who made the adjustments necessary to use that determination for the benefit of her team. Carnucci started all four years she played for Convery.

“She was extremely determined and strong minded,” Convery said. “Right off I said to myself, I like this kid.”

Her friend and teammate, Kim Stoneton of Winthrop, said Carnucci has never been happy to settle. She was always pushing herself to be better. She has remained active and competitive into adulthood.

“She was harder on herself than anyone else would have been,” Stoneton said.

Stoneton has seen the same determination as her friend learns how to use her arms and legs again. “She’s a fighter,” Stoneton said. “All she needed was one person to say you’re not going to walk again for her to prove them wrong.”

LATE NIGHT SWIM

Carnucci’s battle began Aug. 2 at a camp near the Hooksett, N.H., home the couple shares with their two children, 12-year-old Nico and 9-year-old Aysa. The couple made plans to get away that weekend, sending their children to their grandparents so they could spend the weekend with friends at the camp.

She went with some friends for a late night swim at the beach down the road from the camp. Frank, who was finishing up games with his friends, planned to join them later.

Carnucci has spent a lot of time at the camp over the years. She knew the water off the dock was shallow, so she was always careful to keep her head and neck away from the bottom. This time, however, she grabbed a friend’s hand as they jumped in together. The momentum tossed her into the water head first at a steep angle.

Carnucci started sinking to the bottom. Nobody knew she was in trouble until a friend bumped her leg and pulled her to the surface.

Frank Carnucci, who was walking down the road, began to jog when he heard people yelling. The jog turned to a sprint when he heard his wife’s name. He arrived to find a friend holding her out of the water so that her body was perfectly flat.

Most of the Carnuccis’ friends who were there that night work with Jaime’s sister, Kamme Clark McAuliffe, at the New Hampshire NeuroSpine Institute. They knew how to hold her to best protect against further injury.

“Her friends kept her neck still,” Frank Carnucci said. “Jaime wanted to move around.”

By the time she was loaded into an ambulance, they had already contacted the surgeon who would operate on her at Concord Hospital. A CAT scan showed a complete fracture of the C5 vertebra in her neck.

“That one vertebra, the whole thing was destroyed,” Frank Carnucci said. He found some solace in the surgeon’s determination that the fragments had not severed the spinal cord, a fact Frank Carnucci credits to their friends’ knowledgeable assistance immediately after the accident.

Pieces from the front of the broken vertebra were pressing against the spinal cord. The surgeon told Frank Carnucci that they needed to remove the pressure off the cord within eight hours to give her the best chance of recovery. It was around 2 a.m., but the surgeon called in his team, one of whom dropped off his children at a sitter, drove to Boston to retrieve the necessary surgical equipment and materials, and then drove back to Concord in time for the surgery.

“He performed a miracle,” Frank Carnucci said. “We’ve heard from other doctors that the surgery was as textbook as it comes and he was able to do that without all of his tools and staff at a hospital he doesn’t usually work at.”

TOUGH REHAB

Jaime Carnucci could move her right leg the next morning. There has been steady, if sometimes slow, improvement since.

“Five weeks ago, she couldn’t even move her head or fold her hands,” Clark said. “Every day is exciting.”

She was moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston less than two weeks after the accident. Therapy has been intense, sometimes over 12 hours a day. She is now walking with limited assistance as she waits for her left leg and left fingers to fully wake up. She is due to leave later this month.

“They all suggest she’s going to make a full recovery,” Frank Carnucci said. “That’s their hope. They can’t tell you for sure. All they can tell you is that there is no reason she can’t. We are fingers crossed that by mid- to late October she’ll be able to walk out of that building.”

Stoneton has believed her friend will make a full recovery since early on when she had to use a slide board just to get out of bed.

“It wasn’t two days later she was getting out of bed herself,” Stoneton said. “That’s not surprising to me at all.”

Meanwhile, Carnucci’s story has captured the attention of media in New Hampshire and has spread via social media across the globe.

Frank Carnucci began writing about his wife’s progress on his Facebook page while she was still at Concord Hospital. At first it was just the easiest way to let everyone know what was going on, but then he found writing the posts proved therapeutic. It was an opportunity to release his thoughts at the end of each uncertain day. He ended one of those early blogs with a CarnucciStrong hash tag. At the same time, her sister asked people to post on Facebook pictures of themselves with Jaime.

“It turned into not just pictures of Jaime, but people holding up signs with CarnucciStrong,” Frank Carnucci said. “It was just an onslaught of friends and family.”

Frank Carnucci, who is from Maryland, has friends all over the country and overseas who began sending pictures with the CarnucciStrong hash tag. Clark, who works for the Winthrop police, introduced #CarnucciStrong to law enforcement, and it has spread to agencies up and down the East Coast.

“It’s exploded,” Frank Carnucci said. “Our neighbors started making yard signs and bumper stickers. The next thing you know our neighborhood is covered in signs.”

A friend who works on a construction crew in southern Maine changed a caution sign to read #CarnucciStrong for an hour and took a picture to send to the Carnuccis. Frank Carnucci says he gets new Facebook friend requests every day from people he doesn’t know but who want to follow their story.

“It’s crazy stuff like that from all over the place,” he said. “It was like therapy for me when Jaime would fall asleep. It was a way to let it out. It’s turned into it’s own thing. Jaime is inspiring others. They don’t know her, but they see she is fighting.”

Reading those notes has helped Stoneton stay in touch with her friend from a distance. She sees in them a mother determined to get back to caring for her children.

“I think she’s crawling out of her skin,” Stoneton said. “I think it’s really bothering her not to be with her children, which is making her even a stronger fighter. I can totally picture her pushing herself and the physical therapist telling her that’s enough and her saying, “Just a little bit more.'”

STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM

Clark said the inspiration found in CarnucciStrong, and the determination of her daughter to live it out, have helped hold the Winthrop community together since the death of Stoneton’s daughter, Kelsey Stoneton.

Clark talked to Carnucci on the telephone the morning both learned that 17-year-old Kelsey had died of a pulmonary embolism. That same day, Carnucci was rushed to the hospital with a broken neck.

“Jaime called me and told me what Kim posted on Facebook,” Clark said. Jaime, on Stoneton’s Facebook page, expressed her sorrow and offered to do whatever was needed to help.

Clark recalled the embrace she and Kim Stoneton shared at Kelsey’s funeral, both trying to steady the other in the face of news that had sent them reeling. Signs soon began to spring up around Winthrop bearing Kelsey’s Stoneton’s motto, Just Smile, at the same time as signs urging people to be Carnucci Strong.

“People that know them both feel that way,” Clark said “There’s a strong connection to both. They’re trying to be a strong support system for both of them.”

Kim Stoneton said it’s a strange coincidence that her daughter’s death and her friend’s accident occurred on the same day. Tragedies happen, she said. Nobody has a choice in when or how.

“I feel like this has forever connected us,” Stoneton said, her voice breaking. “I know she’s grieving for me and I’m grieving for her.”

Jaime Carnucci recently appeared live via video at a benefit organized by a friend in Hooksett. Family said she has never been one to show her emotions, but seeing her friends and family from Hooksett and Winthrop, all gathered for the singular purpose of supporting her, proved more than even Carnucci could bear. She broke down.

A benefit 5K race is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 15 in Winthrop.

“We’ve asked ourselves repeatedly how do you say thank you? There’s no way,” Frank Carnucci said. “The room is completely covered in cards. If she’s having a bad day, she looks around the room and there’s her motivation. We’re both so grateful and humbled by it.”

Kim Stoneton said she has felt the same support from the community in the wake of her daughter’s death. She, too, wonders how she will ever be able to adequately thank everyone.

Neither she nor Jaime is prone to asking for help, Stoneton said, but the events of Aug. 2 have taught them both how to receive support with tremendous gratitude.

“We don’t have a choice,” Stoneton said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”