By KAREN MAHABIR and EVONNE COUTROS (BERGINRECORD.COM STAFF WRITERS)
Staff Writers Brian Aberback and Darren Cooper contributed.
Lacey Marie Benvenuto would have turned 19 today.
Instead, a cross swathed in yellow ribbon was planted at Donnybrook Drive and Forest Road in Allendale. Beneath it lay a bouquet of pink and yellow roses, also tied in yellow ribbon.
A graduate of Northern Highlands Regional High School who set several school swimming records, Benvenuto was killed Friday morning while riding her bicycle on Forest Road, two blocks from her home.
As news of the popular swimmer’s death spread throughout the community Friday, many of those who knew her openly wept.
“She just had this unique ability to connect with everyone,” said John Keenan, her former principal, wiping away tears. “She was one of the most beautiful and wonderful students I’ve ever had the opportunity to know and work with.”
Her former swim coach at the school, Bob Harkins, said Benvenuto was “the only kid who could wave to me when she was swimming. “That was Lacey: She just lit up every room she walked into,” Harkins said. “Right now, I can’t even think. It’s hard to believe.”
Benvenuto spent four years on the girls’ varsity swim team at Northern Highlands, which draws students from Allendale, Upper Saddle River, Saddle River, and Ho-Ho-Kus. She served as captain and set records in the 50- and 100-meter backstroke, the 200-medley relay, and the 200-freestyle relay.
“She was a tremendous swimmer – one of only four people from our team, three girls, who swam in the Meet of Champions,” said Harkins, who retired this year after 11 years and 17 conference titles, counting boys and girls. “She was one of the best backstrokers we ever had and one of the top five in breaststroke. … Girls like Lacey made it easy to coach.”
A National Merit scholar, Benvenuto also played softball and ran cross-country. She was also a member of her high school choir, and had been in several of the school’s theater productions, Keenan said.
Benvenuto was pursuing a business management degree at Fordham University, where she had just completed her freshman year. This summer, she had been working as a lifeguard and swim coach at the Crestwood Swim Club in Allendale.
Mike Nayden, 19, lives a few doors from where Benvenuto lived. He and his childhood pal remained close. “We were in the same grade, and we were always over each other’s houses,” Nayden said. “We shared the same friends. She was always going for bike rides or for a run. She had energy. She was always up and going. Lacey was never the type to sit around.”
The two also coached recreational swimming together for a summer team at Crestwood Lake. “She was such a people person,” Nayden said. “I would deal more with the parents and she with the children. She was great with everybody.”
Pasta parties and sleepovers at the Benvenuto household were common for up to 30 Northern Highlands swimmers. “She got the team motivated with the house parties,” said teammate Amanda Dugan, 17. “She had sleepovers with balloons and decorations all over her house just to get us psyched up, bring the team together, and get our spirits up. “And she did this her entire four years. Not only when she was the captain.” “Lacey knew everyone’s name,” Dugan said, choking back tears. “She would talk to everyone. No matter what, in the locker room or on the bus, she would always motivate us through talks. She was different from everyone else. She was the epitome of a leader.”
Benvenuto trained tirelessly with the Bergen Barracudas, the Ridgewood YMCA Breakers Swim Team, and the Lakeland Hills YMCA Swim Team, said Scott Reiners, 18. “She always said that you have to train with different coaches because each [one] coaches in different ways,” said Reiners. “She was always determined to succeed. She wanted to do well and never just went through the motions. She worked hard at practice.
“But she didn’t put swimming above everything. She took the friendships she made [in the sport] very seriously.”
One of the people Benvenuto bonded with on the Barracudas was Jamie Lankelis, 20, of Upper Saddle River. They ended up together on the swim team at Fordham. “She was extremely close with the freshmen [on the team] and we only had three,” Lankelis said. “But she was great with them all.”
It’s unusual for a college swimmer to return to his or her swimming roots, Reiners said, but this summer Benvenuto did exactly that. First, she’d practice with the Barracudas from 6 to 8 a.m., then she’d coach Crestwood’s summer swim team – all before working her lifeguard shift, he said. All who knew her agreed about Benvenuto’s dedication to both her sport and her friends.
“She trained hard and wouldn’t sit out or complain,” Dugan said. “When you see someone that dedicated doing that well, you want to work harder and emulate her.”