After Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash, Matt Mauser Has Turned to Pool Following Death of Wife

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Matt Mauser Photo Courtesy: Diego Pombo

After Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash, Matt Mauser Has Turned to Pool Following Death of Wife

It has been more than one year since the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the life of NBA star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, including Christina Mauser. This is the story of how Mauser’s husband, Matt, has used swimming as an outlet in the wake of losing his wife.

Diego Pombo was surprised to see the text message in late February 2020. For the previous few weeks, he’d checked in periodically with his friend, Matt Mauser, trying to let Mauser know he was there for him but also give him space to mourn.

It had been barely a month since Mauser’s wife, Christina, died in the helicopter crash in Calabasas that killed Kobe Bryant and his eldest daughter, Gianna Bryant, among nine total victims; barely a month that Matt had adapted to life as a single father of three children.

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Matt Mauser, right, with son Tom and daughter Penny Rose. Photo Courtesy: Diego Pombo

In the moment, he had a request for Pombo, the coach with whom he’d bonded over Masters swimming workouts for the last two years, Mauser’s big personality melding with the focus of the Colombian coach: Would it be OK if he stopped by for an hour or so at the pool that day? And could Diego maybe meet him a little earlier than their usual noon swim, just so he would be in the pool by himself?

In the darkest days of his grieving process, Mauser found light in the pool. That first day back after a month yielded a slog of only about 1,000 yards, but the distance wasn’t the point. Getting in the water, staring at the black line while his body thrummed away and his mind zoned out, with a trusted friend alongside, that was the respite Mauser needed.

“Once she died, it became something that was more than just a hobby,” Mauser said. “It became my therapy, getting back in the pool and training for the sake of training. … My one break during the day is go to train at noon with the Masters program. “

It’s an escape he’s turned to again and again this year, one he credits with helping his family survive a devastatingly challenging year.

‘Pretty yet ferocious’

Matt and Christina had been dating for about a month when he figured a trip down memory lane might help his chances. Christina’s younger brother was wrestling for Edison High in Huntington Beach, both of their alma maters about a decade apart, when Matt offered to go with her to pick him up from practice.

Telling the story 16 years later, Matt evinces the stage presence he’s known for, with a raconteur’s lilt in his voice. Matt conjured up the idea to swing by the athletic hall of fame lining a hallway, a convenient way to accidentally on-purpose show off the plaque honoring him as a player of the year. Just a subtle way to let her know just what kind of athlete she was lucky enough to be palling around with.

“And she said, ‘Aw, that’s awesome. That’s cool because that’s me right there, and right there and right there,’” Matt said.

Sports and music provided the twin pathways of their lives together. Both were standouts on the field: Matt played baseball and water polo until adding swimming his senior year. He’d go on to swim at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Christina (nee Patterson) starred in basketball and volleyball at Edison, then went on to Cal State Fullerton.

They met through music. Mauser is a guitarist and singer for the Tijuana Dogs, a popular Southern California party band, and works as a Frank Sinatra tribute singer. They met at one of Matt’s gigs, and Matt credits Christina with overhauling the band’s operations and online presence, calling her the “business behind my musical ability.”

The music also brought them into Kobe Bryant’s orbit. Both taught at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar, where Gianna Bryant went to school. Matt composed music for a children’s podcast Bryant produced and acted as his envoy to the world of swimming for a book Bryant developed, what would become “Geese are never swans.”

Bryant was also drawn to Christina, who taught physical education and coached basketball at Harbor Day. There was something, Matt recognized, in their shared steeliness on the court, the 5-7 heady guard who combined talent with superior work ethic and a passion for coaching – as Bryant dubbed her, Christina was the “Mother of Defense.”

“She was pretty and yet ferocious,” Mauser said. “She was kind but you did not want to mess with her. She was sweet and loving and understanding but you get her in a competitive situation, and she was a warrior.”

It’s why Christina ended up coaching at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy and why the 38-year-old was with him that ill-fated Sunday in January. The two strains of life even collided on the day of Christina’s passing: It was only music, with the couple’s eldest daughter Penny Rose due to help Matt record a song to be released on the day of the crash, that kept her at home with him instead of on the chopper with her mother.

Christina’s spirit is what Matt keeps with him, guiding him in raising the kids. It’s what he hopes to foster in others via the Christina Mauser Foundation.

“What I want to be able to do is help girls, parents, single parents, who don’t have means but who have a child who has a lot of the qualities that Christina has, someone who’s going to make everyone on the team better, someone who’s going to be not just the best player but also the hardest worker,” Mauser said. “I want to find parents and families that have one of those kids that maybe don’t have the resources, perpetuate Christina’s spirit.”

In his own way, through the grief process, it’s also the mindset that Mauser takes with him to the pool every time he dives in.

Swimming back to life

In the swirl of grief and mourning, Matt Mauser had a scant few weeks to adjust his new normal to the global reset that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Barely a month after his burying his wife, after getting to establish new routines with the three kids – Penny Rose, now 14, Tom, 10, and Ivy, 4 – everything was thrown into disarray again by the encroaching coronavirus.

From the throng of well-wishers to even just people he’d encounter in daily life, by mid-March, he was down to just himself, the kids and a nanny. “It’s been horrible,” Mauser said. “It’s just been really challenging.” All that was before a bout with COVID-19 for all four in early December. Tom got the worst of it, spiking a fever that required a trip to the emergency room, but they’re past the scariest symptoms.

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Matt Mauser Photo Courtesy: Diego Pombo

Carving out time has been a struggle. He’s lucky to live on a quiet street, not far from the beach, two sites for adventures for the kids when cabin fever ratcheted up. When his pool shut down for six weeks in March, what he calls some of the darkest days of his year, he’d walk the seven-mile round trip on the Santa Ana River Trail to the sea, just to clear his mind.

For Mauser, the oasis in his schedule was an hour’s escape to the pool a few times a week.

Enter Pombo, who has coached Masters swimming for years in California. He and Mauser met for the first time at an evening Masters program that Pombo coached with Ocean County Riptide Aquatics in 2018, when Mauser had come to realize how much he missed training and competing. Soon, Pombo added an informal group at noon on weekdays at Los Cab Sports Village in Fountain Valley, just 10 minutes from the Mauser’s house, in addition to evening sessions for what is now Costa Mesa Aquatic Club. The workouts are all about efficiency – hand paddles and fins, about 3,500 yards in just over an hour, no “garbage yardage” but sets inspired by Pombo’s observations of legendary coach Dave Salo and executed with a purpose.

“He (Mauser) would say, this is my time to be with the water and push myself and have somebody next to me pushing me,” Pombo said. “We try not to be too overprotective of Matt and give him his space, and he would appreciate that and he kept coming back a lot more regularly.”

Before Christina’s death and the pandemic, Mauser became one of a dozen or so regulars. Los Cab has kept an open door for he and the kids, with time in the water a great opportunity to tire them out and change up the routines. (Penny Rose and Tom both play water polo, in what seems like a perfect convergence of their parents’ athletic skills.)

Mauser has tried meditation as a coping mechanism, but it doesn’t work for him, the restlessness often overpowering. Swimming, though, delivers the clarity of mind he’s seeking. With the body occupied, engaged to the point of exhaustion, he attains a mental state that blocks out the distractions.

Often, that brings his mind to his wife – to the crash, to her absence, to the life they had hoped to build. At a time when the emotional burdens can seem so intractable, their edges prickly and diffuse, having a set on the board and a time window to accomplish it is freeing, a way to replenish his supplies of mental and emotional energy to tackle the other, less black-and-white tasks of the day.

“Through swimming and having the task at hand of completing whatever the set was and getting through it, I use that as a metaphor for life in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s helped me train my mind to get through pain, emotional and physical. The act of swimming has become very metaphoric of how I get through so much of this period of my life.”

Mauser understood from the beginning of his return to the water that it required inviting in pain: The physical pain that comes with a good workout, yes, but also the emotional pain, of being alone with your thoughts and the cold reality of it. He’s blunt about the apprehension he felt about that, especially when the trauma was at its rawest.

But in the sensory deprivation of the pool, it’s not just that Mauser can check in with his emotions under his terms. There’s also something special about the safe space he’s allowed to do that in. In that way, the training group reminds him of the camaraderie of Cal Poly’s co-ed team.

And it’s why that text to Pombo back in February, what seems a world of challenges ago, wasn’t just for keys to the pool but for a little company.

“The set, as challenging as it is, the breaks are there and you’re with people. And I don’t think I could’ve done it by myself,” Mauser said. “I don’t think I could’ve swum by myself. Being part of a Masters program and having that community of people has really helped me to continue swimming and to kind of work through those moments when I just don’t feel like swimming. … There’s something about swimming with people that you enjoy being around that is just really rewarding and fun and helps you continue.”

8 comments

  1. avatar
    Dana Caragine

    Beautiful piece! So resonant!

  2. avatar
    Judith

    A man has to do what gets him through the day. He is doing what will get him to manage the next day. This is all done with his kids as priority and staying strong for them. He had been dealt a hand he never expected. Prayers for him to keep up with the cards he was handed. Your doing a great job, keep up the good work. Prayers for you and your family

    • avatar
      David Neef

      Great article

  3. avatar
    Tez S

    Nice article. Great to see your work, Matt DeGeorge!

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      I. Love. You. Matt

  4. avatar
    Jamie

    I heard a couple of songs by Matt Mauser on Good Day L.A. this morning I agree with Tony McEwing his music which I heard is so beautiful just as this article I wanted to know if any of his music can be purchased. God continue to bless and move in him and his children lives.

  5. avatar
    Tanya

    I swim masters also as a full time caregiver to my husband for 19 yrs . Fins and workouts are what keep me sane 👍🏻

  6. avatar
    Shawn Pendergast

    My ❤️felt prayers are extended continually for all who suffered that gloomy day. Whatever it takes, whoever is needed, to help lighten the pain of the tragic loss endured, I hope it is received abunduntly. They all need God’s loving embrace to carry on. 🙏✝️💝

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