How the Pennsylvania Swimming Community Faces Tragedy

Photo Courtesy: Kathy Wingert

By Katie Wingert, Swimming World College Intern. 

For several Pennsylvania swimming teams, tragedy does not have the final word—camaraderie does. Both within teams and across team lines, swimmers, parents, and coaches alike are extending helping hands to one another in times of hardship.

Swimming Big: SUNY’s Alex Moser Memorial Invitational

In Sunbury, Pennsylvania, the memory of Alex Moser lives on, and his joyful way of life continues to impact his swimming community.

Jerry Foley, Moser’s coach at Sunbury YMCA (SUNY) and the current head coach at Susquehanna University, says he’ll never forget the phone call he received from Moser’s father during in the wee hours of the morning on a Saturday in January of 2010. The message was hard-hitting: the17-year-old had passed away that night in a car crash. Foley was in shock. Moser had been at practice the very night of the crash.

“He was just driving to get soda that night,” reflects Jeannie Zappe, former SUNY assistant coach. Driving to get a soda with a couple of friends was in keeping with the way the teen lived his life: wholeheartedly. Moser was outgoing and enjoyed participating in extreme sports, including skiing and skateboarding. As a sprinter, he had been all in for the sport of swimming, medaling at States as a freshman and representing Milton High School as an independent swimmer.

The team immediately had decisions to make about how they would grieve and move forward from the tragedy of Moser’s death. On Sunday, SUNY had a club meet to attend, and Moser had been entered in the 200 medley relay. For the race, Moser’s relay swam alone, and his butterfly leg of the 200 medley relay was left empty. During the time it would have taken for Moser to swim the fly, the crowd cheered wildly in memory of his life. That was what Moser would have wanted, everyone agreed. He would have wanted them to live and swim by the mantra that reflected his own life: “Go big or go home.”

Moser’s parents became instrumental in re-shaping Alex’s death into a turning point for the lives of others. That process began at Moser’s funeral, when his parents passed out his swimming ribbons in a basket for people to take home with them, in memory of the big, fearless life Moser had lived. “My son still has his,” Zappe says. “We tried our best to celebrate his life and the big life he had lived, although way too short.”

Since Moser’s death, his parents and Foley have coordinated an annual memorial swim meet at Susquehanna University, around the weekend that he passed away. The meet is a continual celebration of Moser’s joyful life, complete with pool deck decorations and attire in Moser’s favorite color—hot pink. The meet continues to welcome about 250-300 participants from around the state, and it raises funds for college scholarships for one male and one female swimmer for SUNY.

For Foley and for SUNY, “There are always Alex moments,” Foley says. And yet, despite the ever-present reality of grief, Moser’s legacy lives on, over seven years after his death.

 Embracing the Journey of Life with Lymphoma: Nikolette Nolte

nolte-teammates

Photo Courtesy: Kutztown Dolphins Swim Team Facebook

Meanwhile, for the Kutztown Dolphins and the Boyertown Navy Seals, supporting team member Niki Nolte, who was diagnosed in April with Primary Mediastinal Large Mass B Cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, has become a part of their team DNA. While Nolte, a rising senior in high school, bravely negotiates the harsh realities of cancer in the midst of her high school experience, Nolte feels that the sport—both as a literal physical undertaking and as a greater community of people–has given her the strength to battle her cancer.

Despite acknowledging the difficulties of experiencing cancer treatment while attempting to undergo the recruiting process, Nolte says that swimming has encouraged her to face cancer with the “mental toughness” her sport requires. Boyertown teammate Holly Hagar can’t stop talking about Nolte’s extraordinary toughness. She calls Nolte “one of those gifted swimmers who has dreams as well as the drive to achieve those dreams.”

Nolte has had a goal in mind throughout her treatment: being back in the water this fall, doing what she loves. With the help of her family and friends, she believes that goal will be possible. She notes that having to stop swimming for a bit this year has made her appreciate her training that much more. “From here on out,” she says, “Every practice, every race, every dryland session will be something I’ll appreciate and cherish for the rest of my life.

Nolte’s club team and summer team have both responded to her diagnosis and treatment with support, a response which Hagar credits to the many kind gestures Nolte herself has made throughout her career. Of her fellow swimmers’ encouragement, Nolte says “I would not be able to get through this without them.”

The Kutztown Dolphins, Nolte’s summer team, shows their support for her daily by wearing the logo of the green Lymphoma ribbon on their racing caps. The Boyertown YMCA Navy Seals, Nolte’s winter club team, made shirts that display one of Nolte’s fighting mantras: “Don’t focus on the destination but embrace the journey along the way.”

In addition, outside of her own team, Nolte says the swimming community at large has made her feel supported. Her competitors, aware of her situation, have reached out with cards and gifts. Jolyn Swimwear, with the help of Nolte’s friend, Madeleine Songer, made Nolte a custom top with the Lymphoma ribbon on it. “It has truly been amazing to feel the love the swimming community has given me,” she gushes. “I don’t think any other sport experiences something like this.”

Splashing and Dashing for Cancer: Annville-Cleona Otters’ All-25s Invitational

otter-strong-cap

Photo Courtesy: Kathy Wingert

A couple of hours away, the Annville-Cleona Otters host a summer, all-25s invitational in view of another cancer-related cause, that of families on their team who have been affected by various cancers. The event, which is in its second year, was initially conceptualized as a way of fundraising for the Peachey family, who had been a part of the club for over a decade and who lost their father to terminal colon cancer in June of 2016. Now in its second year, the event has expanded to support several other Otter families who are currently facing cancer.

The meet is open to any willing participants, including current members of the Otters’ swim league, as well as retired competitive swimmers of all ages. As a result, the meet encompasses an extensive age range, from toddlers who can only swim a length with the aid of a noodle, to team parents and grandparents swimming a lap of butterfly for the first time in decades. This year, the meet program was also expanded to include a 100 freestyle relay event for families.

All entries are solely by donation, and the meet concludes with an additional fundraiser—the “dash” component of the event. Participants purchase white event t-shirts, don their goggles, and run through a cloud of colored powder in celebration of a day of swimming and solidarity.

“We’ve always wanted to have this kind of event,” says Otters head coach, Jim Gardner, who felt that the team needed to wait for an important cause to pull off an all-25s fundraiser. Gardner’s desire was to create an event for the local swimming community that would remind swimmers young and old of the joy that the sport can bring to life—without, as he puts it, “any of the other junk that can come with the sport,” like pressure to succeed, status within a team, and burn-out.

Gardner says hosting the meet for the first time last July was the team’s natural response to the tragedy of Kent Peachey‘s passing. Now, the team has developed the slogan “Otters Strong” as a continued response to all of the recent battles with cancer that families have experienced. The team sports pink caps with the slogan, and the team uses the phrase as part of their promotion for their meet, in view of the way that strength amid tragedy is communal, not just individual.

Whether swimming Otters Strong, embracing the journey, or going big, the greater Pennsylvania swimming community is not without hope. In the face of tragedy, it continually responds with remembrance, with solidarity, and with community.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

9 Comments

9 comments

  1. avatar

    Upper Main Line YMCA, in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, hosts 2 annual meets to honor 2 former teammates whose lives were cut tragically short. The first meet is the Michelle Deasey Mini Invitational, a short course yards meet held in March, and the second is the Cameron Evans Invitational, a long course meet held in July.

  2. We still have Splash & Dash shirts available for $5. All the money will go to the Otter families affected by Cancer. They are available at our swim practices, our next home meet on July 15th, and at All Stars on July 23rd. You can decorate them with fabric marker, have your team mates sign it, or tie dye it amazing colors. Thank you everyone who has supported the Otters so far in this amazing fundraiser. Otters Strong!!! Thank you Katie for this article.

  3. Amy Lee

    Saw Nikki swim in high school meet, this winter vs Twin Valley and not again for the season. Then heard she got Mono. Wow, so sad hope to see her back in the water again this winter and making another run for district 3 champion in 100 breaststroke.

Author: Katie Wingert

avatar
Katie Wingert is a senior at Messiah College, where she is majoring in English with a secondary teaching certification and minoring in French. Katie swims middle-distance freestyle and IM for the Falcons and serves as an assistant coach for the Annville-Cleona Otters. In 2017, Katie was named the NCAA Division III Elite 90 Award recipient for Women’s Swimming and Diving.

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