A Beachcomber reporter reflects on the memory of his friend Ryan Warner, who died of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome on Jan. 12, 2017.
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I found the silver goggles nesting on the bottom of my swim bag, hiding underneath my thick, warm towel. It was the same towel that I used for multiple swim seasons, the same towel my brother used for practices, and the same towel I shared with my friends on the swim team.
I tossed the towel aside. My focus was on the goggles.
I clutched them in my hands, staring into the lenses, practically seeing his big brown eyes. I was immediately overcome with emotions– anger, sadness, depression. These goggles belonged to Ryan Matthew Warner. He would lend these goggles to me without question every time I forgot or lost mine.
Four months ago we were swimming together in the same lane, barely paying attention to the coach, just wanting to get through the grueling practice. We’d talk about food; he would tell me about the way he fried bologna for dinner sometimes, he tried to convince me to try it.
Our times were close in 50 and 100 free as well as the 200 IM, so I always thought of him as my rival. This rivalry could be traced to the first meet of the season. We both swam the 100 freestyle, and we were side by side the whole race. He beat me by less than a second.
I enjoyed high-fiving and hugging him after the race because we were just happy we didn’t get last place.
I was also ecstatic to see his father, Derrick, who congratulated me and Ryan afterwards. Derrick frequently timed at our meets, and he always made my day better with his encouraging words before a race.
Ryan and Derrick had a bond that I admired. Ryan often spoke about his father, and I loved hearing it. He’d talk about his father’s uniquely colored eyes and the close relationship they shared
I was still looking into the tinted lenses of the goggles when I thought, “These goggles are what I have left of him.” I took them with me to swim in the Hamptons pool those next couple nights, feeling almost like I was with him again.
Every time I dipped and dived into the lukewarm water, it felt as If I entered an emotional reverie, one where I could come to terms with the reality that he was gone. One night I came back feeling extremely selfish. These goggles weren’t mine, they were his. I couldn’t keep them. I determined that I would ultimately return his goggles to his family.
I decided I would wait for the weekend to give the goggles back, but I didn’t, so I said next weekend, but I still didn’t. Once again, another weekend went by. I didn’t know why I couldn’t just give them back. Was I scared? Was I nervous? Or was I just lazy? I became disgusted with myself as the days went along. My sadness was overcome with self-disdain.
Several weeks passed and I still hadn’t returned the goggles. While disappointed, things got easier emotionally (I can’t say that for everyone who was affected). The love from friends and family provided the best healing for me. It had been nearly a month, and already so much had changed.
I finally returned them. I had talked to John Mertler, one of my swim coaches, who always gives good advice, and he recommended giving the goggles to Ryan’s brother, Evan, who swims for the Beachwood swim club and plays water polo. I was a bit hesitant about giving the goggles to his younger brother, but I was persuaded when John told me Evan’s father already gave Evan a pair of Ryan’s, but he couldn’t use them because they were prescription.
Later that week, I couldn’t see Evan that day because of other commitments, so I asked my coach to give it to him. I felt good when I handed the goggles over to John. He knew how much this meant to me, and he understood the emotional value of it all.
I’m always delighted to see his younger brothers and the rest of Ryan’s family. Evan’s nearly always smiling when I see him, which brightens my day a bit.
How could this piece of plastic have such an impact on my life?
Maybe it was the friendship associated with it, or the memories, possibly the love. Ryan touched a lot of people through his character. While not being his best friend, I know that he was a big part of my life and the lives of many others.
I miss you and love you, Ryan.