Recreational swimming lasts only a few months a year – April through July. They practice and compete and they’re done. That hardly seems long enough time to form tight bonds and lasting friendships, but it happens.
The Cut Off Youth Center Hurricane Swim Team formed these ever-lasting bonds of friendship and family because most have been swimming with the team their entire lives. The COYC Hurricanes are a family. It’s fully on display at each and every practice and meet.
When Braxton Bourda, one of their veteran teammates was tragically lost on June 5, the group wanted to ensure he would not be forgotten this swim season, or ever.
With only a week to go before their next swim meet, Holly Cheramie had an idea on how to memorialize Braxton and show the team’s unified support. “He [Braxton] was such a huge part of this team,” Cheramie said. “The kids looked up to him. We felt we had to honor him in some way.”
Braxton was known for sporting his iconic yellow swim cap with a smiley face on it. He wore it at every practice and meet. It was his trademark. Cheramie’s idea was to outfit each COYC swimmer with “The Braxton Swim Cap”. It was an ambitious idea, one that Cheramie knew she could accomplish with help from her extended Hurricane family. She donated some money to the cause and asked other parents to do the same. Before long, the swim caps were paid for and ordered.
“I asked the other parents if they wanted to donate to the swim cap fund. It was something the coaches and the other parents believed in, so we made it happen”, said Cheramie.
The team raised enough money to purchase 150 swim caps, one for every member of their team for the June 14 meet in Thibodaux. Fifty of the caps had the smiley face already printed on it. The remaining 100 were hand painted by Cheramie’s daughter and a few of her friends by hand.
They arrived in Thibodaux for their first meet without Braxton, but each COYC member sporting his yellow, smiley-face swim caps. The Thibodaux team did the same thing!
Andrea Cheramie-Stentz, a parent with the Thibodaux team, sprang into action and duplicated Cheramie’s idea. Thibodaux’s swim team had 88 plain yellow swim caps for each of their members – a sure sign of their support.
Addie Eserman-Duet was amazed by the experience. “COYC and Thibodaux have an unspoken rivalry,” she said. “For these kids to come together for a cause is something to be celebrated,” she added.
Erin Danos has been coaching the COYC Hurricanes since 2005 when Braxton was only 7 years old. “We are a family and are very close”, she says. “I watched him grow up. He was like a child to me…like one of my own kids,” adds Danos. “And to see the Thibodaux and Cut Off teams come together for support of Braxton like this is just great,” she added with a tearful smile.
The Cut Off swim team is truly a family affair. At the SCSA Meet of Champions held on June 28 at the COYC, Braxton’s entire family, great-grandmother, grandmother and mother was at the pool volunteering and watching Braxton’s younger sister Quendon compete. They each wore Braxton’s trademark smiley face on a yellow t-shirt. Every member of the Hurricane family – swimmer, parent, grandparent and volunteer wore an identical t-shirt. It was another way the entire COYC Hurricane family was able to show their solidarity and support.
Braxton’s great-grandmother Peggy Bagala understands the importance of family and swimming. She was on the first Board of Directors at the Cut Off Youth Center – they secured the funding to have the pool built. Bagala didn’t stop there and hasn’t slowed down since. She heads Les Reflection Du Bayou and last year started a free, week-long swimming class opened to anyone who wished to learn to swim. Bagala funds the program called “Gift of Life” solely through donations.
“Many of our local kids graduate within a levee system and don’t know how to swim,” Bagala says. “Could you imagine if a school bus full of children went into the bayou? Each child on that bus should be able to swim.”
The “Gift of Life” program was started last year with an idea that came through divine intervention.
“God kept telling me to do this. You can’t ignore God,” she added.
This year’s program will take place July 28 and run the entire week. Participants receive instruction and education from swim instructors, the LA Department of Wildlife and Fisheries about boating and water safety, Windell Curole with the Levee District and much more.
This year, participants will receive the trademark Braxton-smiley-face swim cap at the completion of the program.
“Braxton loved the water and swimming. I just wanted to share that gift,” Bagala states.
Braxton’s favorite event was the butterfly. His mother, Chelsie Hebert, could always be heard cheering her son on at every meet. “I would always yell ‘HURRY’ when he swam,” she said.
While Braxton has a trademark swim cap, his mom has her trademark yell.
“I would yell to him to hurry because he would never kick with his legs. He won his races using just his upper body,” she said with a chuckle. “He never used his legs, ever! And, he always won,” she added.
On the back of everyone’s yellow t-shirt, ‘Fly High Braxton’ is emblazed referencing his love of the butterfly stroke.
Assistant coach Meagan Danos never had a problem with his lack of leg kicking. “Inside these fences, in this pool, was a true representation of who he was as a person and as an athlete,” she said. “He always took swimming seriously.”
On Sunday, June 29, the day after the Championship Meet, the Hurricane swim team partnered with New Life Counseling Center and offered a grief seminar at the COYC. Grief counseling isn’t all they do. The local non-profit funds itself through private donations and has been counseling residents and providing counseling resources to residents of South Lafourche for more than 15 years.
Kristyn S. Carver, PhD, LCS, talked about the five stages of grief and how it affects people differently.
“The hardest part about the grieving process is the uncertainty and changes in our normal routine,” she said. “It’s healthy for family members to talk together and know what each member is going through. Having a sense of community…it helps with the grieving process.”
The COYC Hurricanes certainly have that sense of community.
Posted on Wed, July 2, 2014
by Marc Kimball, Contributing Writer