By: Jen Russon
The memorial bench and tree honoring Nick Dworet at the Coral Springs Aquatic Complex is not a place to feel sad. It’s a place to relax, regroup, and watch the comings and goings of people who shared the 17-year-old’s enthusiasm for swimming.
Nick, along with 16 others who died and 17 more who were injured, was a victim of the Valentine’s Day school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
One year later, a plaque beneath a freshly planted magnolia tree bears the young man’s photo. It is inscribed with an inspirational thought he jotted down and kept beside the bed.
“I will train as hard as I can in and out of the water. Even on my hardest days, I swear to give it my all, and I will let nothing stand in my way.”
His actions spoke louder than his words. Before he passed away, Nick had been granted an athletic scholarship to the University of Indianapolis. The surprising part of Nick’s achievement was this: about 18 months before he inked a deal to swim with the Indy greyhounds, he thought he was burnt out on the sport.
“He seemed a little lost back then,” said Nick’s coach, Andre Bailey, “like he wasn’t in love with swimming anymore.”
Bailey said the 180 degree turn-around coincided with the teen’s return from Sweden – where his mother, Annika was born and where one of his swimming idols, Sarah Sjostrom lives.
Bailey lights up when he talks about what it was like to coach Nick after his big trip. Nick’s parents, Mitch and Annika, also love to talk about his transformation from an average teenager with so-so grades into an honor student with unwavering focus.
Though he hated jumping into cold water first thing in the morning, Nick trained on vacation.
“He didn’t want to be in Sweden three weeks without ever getting in the pool. I think while he was out there it hit him that he could go somewhere with his swimming – that maybe he could get a scholarship,” said Annika.
His parents agreed their son seemed more relaxed in Sweden; their Olympic swimmers clocked slower times than the Americans, and it wasn’t long before Nick began to talk about moving there one day to compete.
Coach Bailey said that when Nick got serious, he met with Annika and Mitch weekly to keep them in the loop on their son’s amazing progress.
His parents said the teen ditched his beloved junk food, started eating healthier, and swam three hours a day, six days a week.
“Nick asked me, ‘do you think I could swim at college?,’ and my answer was, ‘yes sir, I do,” said Bailey, who opened up about how much he misses him; how everyone Nick trained with at TS Aquatics in Tamarac remains heartbroken over his loss.
“You have no idea,” he said. “Nick was the unofficial captain of my team. He motivated everyone. The last picture I took of him was at the aquatic complex in Coral Springs. He was giving a pep talk to a group of 14-year-olds,” Bailey reminisced.
Nick’s father, Mitch, said that was just like him.
“He wasn’t overconfident, so much as inclusive. He would lead his teammates in a song on the bus. Whether he won or lost, he’d reach across the pool and shake his opponent’s hand – he was just very, very happy,” Mitch remembers.
His wife shared similar stories. Their son had always been an excellent sportsman.
“He was never angry, not even as a baby,” said Annika.
Annika, who looks a lot like Nick, met and married Mitch in California. The couple moved to Coral Springs when Nick was just over one-years-old. A few years later, Nick’s brother, Alexander, now 15, was born.
Annika is an ER nurse at Broward Health Coral Springs and Mitch is a Realtor with Skye Louis Realty. Both of their children learned to swim at the aquatic complex and Mitch said the site of the memorial was chosen because it was the drop-off point when his sons took lessons, and for that reason, it holds a special meaning.
“I really like the view of the pond there. When people are being dropped off or picked up, maybe they’ll sit on Nick’s bench and wonder, ‘who was Nick Dworet?’”
Those who knew him best answer that with words like “empathetic” and “warm”. They say that Nick was a guy who liked bringing everybody into the fold; he leaves behind a legacy the Dworets have set up as Swim4Nick, a nonprofit that helps swimmers be the best they can be.
“Everything we do with Swim4Nick has always felt very pure to me. I want someone to say, I’m swimming for Nick. He showed me I could get a scholarship,” said Mitch.
Donations to the nonprofit benefits swim clinics, helping underprivileged kids train to be better swimmers, and, ultimately, provide a college scholarship to a qualifying Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior.
The Dworet family will officially dedicate Nick’s memorial at a ceremony on Sunday, February 3 at 11 a.m. The event is open to the public.
The Coral Springs Aquatic Complex is located at 12441 Royal Palm Blvd. The memorial site is on the east side of the entrance.
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.