Halfway down the pool on her first day with the Sequim High School swim team, freshman Anna White, 14, began to panic.
“I could swim perfectly fine coming from the 12 feet into the four but going from the four feet into the 12 feet I would lose control and panic,” Anna said. “I couldn’t go past (halfway). I would just stop myself.”
Anna was scared, she said.
It had been more than a month after her 18-year-old brother Calvin Josiah “CJ” William White drowned July 19 in Lake Cushman. He drowned going from the shallow water to deeper water, his mom Peggy Roedell said.
Anna was on her way to the water at the time of the accident with towels for everyone.
Her family searched for CJ and about three hours after their 9-1-1 call CJ was found in 12-foot-deep water.
Since then, family and friends remember him for his faith, friendliness, selflessness and much more.
Anna said his death hit her hard. She spent the rest of the summer with her family, particularly her eight siblings, and her brother’s best friends who would stay with them for a period of time.
But come the fall, Anna had two goals from last school year — to get in shape for the track season and to join the swim team.
Roedell, an experienced swimmer in her own right, said Anna came to her saying she really wanted to swim, dive and be a part of the swim team.
“It really surprised me when she wanted to swim and dive,” Roedell said. “I was a little afraid. I wasn’t sure how she would emotionally handle it. But there’s something CJ taught us: Whatever your fear is that’s a reflection of your lack of faith in God. So how much do you trust God?”
Roedell said she had confidence in Anna’s strength and ability and that she trusted God to face their fears.
“I can’t tell you I didn’t struggle but it was really beautiful watching her go out,” she said.
Initially, Anna said she turned to diving because she liked the thought of being able to do flips off the diving board but it became more than that.
“I didn’t want to be afraid of the water or be afraid of being in the water,” she said.
Back to the beginning
Before the first practice, Anna comforted her mom saying that she didn’t need to be there.
“‘I’m fine. I’m fine,’ she told me,” Roedell said. “But at the end of the first day, she says, ‘Mom, I panicked.’ She was pretty upset but told me God helped her through it and Mark (Pincikowski) helped her through it.”
Pincikowski, the Sequim High assistant girls swim coach, said he didn’t know Anna’s story before that day.
“She told me she had a panic attack,” he said. “And after awhile she told me what happened.”
Pincikowski shared his own story of loss with Anna. His brother was killed while riding a bicycle in 2009.
“I told her that the pain is always going to be there,” Pincikowski said. “Little things that are going to trigger the loss.”
Anna said when she swam to 12 feet it reminded her of CJ just like Pincikowski told her if he drives near a bicyclist he’s reminded of his brother.
“I asked if her brother would want her to have fun and accept her loss or bury her head and hide,” Pincikowski said.
“She made the choice to move forward and that’s not easy for anyone nonetheless a teenager.”
Through their first talk, Anna learned Pincikowski and CJ had similar philosophies.
“What would CJ would do when he was afraid?” Roedell asked her daughter.
“He would go and do what he was afraid of,” Anna said.
For a few weeks to start the season, Roedell joined her daughter at practices sitting poolside at the deep end watching and encouraging her daughter.
Eventually, Roedell spoke to the coaches, Anita Benitez and Pincikowski about Anna taking up diving instead of swimming because that’s what Anna was most interested in. Nearly two weeks later Anna was diving.
“She went out and fell in love with diving and they fell in love with her diving,” Roedell said.
Forming the approach
Since Anna began diving later in the season, she had a bigger learning curve than others.
But Pincikowski said it came together for her at the team’s first Saturday practice.
“Her approaches were almost flawless,” he said.
Anna worked on approaches and how to dive off a board with her mom, who said her aspirations as a girl were always to be an Olympic diver.
“I was thrilled when I saw Anna had some natural ability there,” Roedell said.
“She seems to have a natural bent toward it. When she’s standing out there on the board there’s this feeling you have when you are about to do a back dive and Anna just holds herself in a great way.”
Admittedly, Anna said she gets nervous but has a technique before beginning.
“I find a clock in the room when doing a forward approach,” she said. “There’s a clock right in front of me (at SARC) and I wait until it hits four. Then I count 1, 2, 3, and by then it’s on 7 and I say ‘go’ to myself. I do that to calm down and focus.”
Through the season, Anna has put her focus on learning multiple dives, particularly her favorites the back dive and reverse somersault.
Pincikowski said the girls often tell him they are scared to try something different like a harder dive.
“But I wouldn’t ask them to do something if I didn’t think they’d go to the next level,” he said.
Anna said those words and CJ’s motto stuck with her when trying a somersault straight dive.
“My coach said you are only afraid of it because you’ve never done it before so I did the dive,” she said.
“I didn’t necessarily complete it, but I tried.”
Pincikowski said his experience through the season was that Anna listened and adjusted her technique following his advice.
She earned a spot at the diving district’s meet in early November, which is uncommon for a freshman, Pincikowski said.
“Most people get stuck on reverse dives — doing a forward approach and taking hips and turning mid-air — most people get stuck on that,” he said. “Most divers can’t do it after three years.”
Anna made the first cut at districts but didn’t go past the second, she said.
“Most first-year divers don’t make it to districts and most freshmen don’t make it to districts but I made it and I started late in the season,” Anna said.
Pincikowski said he was amazed at how Anna took on her fears so soon. But looking ahead, she’ll have to do it over and over to rise above this year’s successes.
“She’ll need to have no fear (to become a state level diver),” he said.
“Before districts, she was having anxiety in her face before every dive but at districts, she didn’t have that. She had confidence.”
Getting past the point of nervousness took time for Anna, but she finds diving to be a lot of fun. She even earned the nickname “mermaid” for being quick and doing tricks in the water.
“Everything goes by so fast that it’s a rush and awesome,” she said about diving. “A lot of people say they wish they could fly and in a way you are.”
Anna and her family have become water enthusiasts again since she joined the team.
Roedell said she gave her children swimming lessons consistently since they were little including CJ who had multiple full lessons.
“We do a lot of swimming,” she said. “I wanted my kids to be comfortable around the water.”
After CJ’s accident, she called SARC and asked if there was a way she could privately reintroduce them all to the water before beginning private lessons again.
“After they (SARC) shut down, lifeguards all donated two hours, basically one lifeguard per person,” she said.
“Many of them we know from homeschooling and OPA (Olympic Peninsula Academy).”
But Anna and her siblings, ages 7-19, all have a desire to be in the water, Roedell said.
A few of them really want to learn to dive and Samantha, who was swimming while CJ drowned, wants to become a lifeguard.
When asked if she’s a role model, Anna deferred.
“I think it’s possible for anyone to be,” she said.
Reach Matthew Nash at email@example.com.