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High school swimming: Father’s memory spurs Indian River athlete Rodriquez


PHILADELPHIA — Rachel Rodriquez never imagined she’d be winding down her swimming career without her most loyal fan.

The Indian River senior lost her father nearly three years ago when he died unexpectedly at age 51.

Trinidad “David” Rodriquez Jr., a soldier stationed at Fort Drum, suffered a heart attack on Jan. 10, 2011, during physical training at the military base. He died in the hospital three days later.

Rachel recently concluded her sixth season on the Warriors varsity and is involved in the Watertown YMCA Blue Sharks and the USA Swimming club at Fort Drum. Her success and passion for the sport is largely due to David’s overly-enthusiastic support.

“It wouldn’t matter what sport I did, he would have been the No. 1 supporter,” Rachel said. “Because I chose swimming, and I succeeded in it, he supported me 100 percent.”

David was well-known in the swimming community for his lively poolside presence during practice and competitions. The Blue Sharks created an award in his memory to recognize a swimmer each season who exhibits the same passion for the sport that David had. Jason “Jay Jay” Badalato, 10, is the most recent recipient of the Rodriquez Spirit Award.

“Jay Jay is the epitome of what that award is about,” said Rachel’s mother, Elizabeth “Kawehi” Rodriquez. “If he knows a swimmer in the pool, he’s standing up yelling and cheering for them and that’s exactly what David did.”

The Rodriquez family moved from Hawaii to Fort Drum in 2006, as Rachel was entering fifth grade. There wasn’t a USA Swimming club at Fort Drum yet, so Rachel joined the Blue Sharks team. She has qualified for the YMCA state meet ever since. Rachel’s ability was noticed by Indian River varsity coach Alan Baker while she was in intramurals during sixth grade. She impressed him and was invited up to varsity from where the seventh-grader made an immediate impact.

“She’s certainly been a force for all of her six years,” Baker said. “She’s made a positive impact on the program.”

This season Rachel led the Frontier League’s North Division in the 100-yard backstroke and clocked a personal record of 1 minute, 9.76 seconds, during the league championships. She swam the 100 butterfly in 1:08.27 to rank second, behind Carthage’s Claire Sauter. Rachel’s career best of 1:05.08 in the fly was clocked as an eighth-grader and junior.

Rachel says her best achievement in swimming isn’t a race she won or a fast time she registered. She’s most proud of receiving the Doc Edick Award, given by the officials during the league championships.

“They give it to a senior who shows dedication, perseverance, sportsmanship, leadership and hard work over their years of swimming in the league,” Rachel said. “Winning it really made my day, my year, everything.”

While David displayed his support in a loud, animated manner, Kawehi’s style is near the other end of the spectrum.

“I’m the mom that sits in the stands and crochets while she’s swimming,” Kawehi said. “I don’t yell and scream. That was her dad’s thing.”

Kawehi, who stresses academic performance over swimming results, says Rachel would be swimming at a much higher level if David was still here.

“If she kept up the pace that she was going, and he was still alive, she’d be breaking all kinds of records,” Kawehi said. “But she’s stuck with a mom who says, ‘Good job, Rachel.’ I’m not him. I couldn’t push her like he could.”


David was consumed with taking care of Rachel and meeting her needs, especially when it came to swimming.

“He was one of those dads who loved being a dad, and he was good at it,” Kawehi said.

The family constantly adjusted its budget to accommodate Rachel’s needs, including prescription goggles when her eyesight declined.

“Whatever he could do to help me, he was there,” Rachel said. “I think sometimes he was a little too much “there.”

Kawehi said Baker occasionally had to reprimand David by saying, “‘Mr. Rodriquez, you need to calm down, no pounding on the dive pads.’”

The Blue Sharks later instituted a rule that no parents were allowed at practice because David would pace the deck yelling and screaming.

“He was an equal opportunity yeller,” Kawehi said. “He yelled at you if you were a parent, a swimmer, but mostly the kids who were getting in the water.”

Still displayed on the Indian River pool office window is an 8-by-11-inch printout of David cheering on his team during a meet at South Jefferson. He had recently undergone LASIK eye surgery and hadn’t yet been cleared by the doctor to drive. Kawehi was scheduled to work at the Fort Drum commissary that night so she was unable to attend.

“I told him on the phone, ‘Dad, I have a ride home, don’t worry about it, just stay home and rest, and he drove to the meet anyway,” Rachel said. “He showed up with his little sunglasses on because he couldn’t see right, and it was cute, and we took a picture of him cheering us on.”


Rachel began swimming at 5 years old after being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) while the family was living in Hawaii. As her pediatrician began to prescribe a medication, Kawehi objected, “I told him, ‘No, no medicine. I’ll channel that energy into something good.’”

It was Kawehi’s idea to enroll Rachel in swimming lessons at the YMCA. While at the community pool one day, a family friend, who was also a USA Swimming coach, took notice of Rachel’s abilities and love of the water. Rachel, then 6, tried out and made the USA team.

David, meanwhile, was a nervous wreck watching Rachel at the pool. He didn’t know how to swim, other than to save his life, despite serving 10 years in the Navy. Afraid of the water, he wasn’t fully on board with Rachel’s swimming activities.

Kawehi continued to reassure David that Rachel would be fine, and swimming did lessen the ADHD symptoms.

“Swimming was a good way to channel all that energy she had instead of putting pills in her,” Kawehi said. “We made her be busy, so when she wasn’t swimming she was reading. You look at her now, she’s the calmest child ever.”


David never did learn to swim, but he became proud of Rachel’s progress and eventually embraced her interest in swimming wholeheartedly. He learned the fundamentals and became a YMCA official.

“He could look at a stroke and tell you how to fix it,” Rachel said. “He learned everything about the strokes, and he knew how to teach it. He could be, ‘Oh, fix your arm by doing this…’ but he probably couldn’t do it himself if you asked him to, which is kind of funny.”

David tracked not only Rachel’s progress but also the her teammates’ efforts.

“It was cute because he knew everyone’s times on the team,” Rachel said. “He was like Coach No. 2. He was kind of like the team dad for the girls whose dads wouldn’t come or couldn’t come.”

Kawehi says the shift in his attitude for swimming came after he returned from his first deployments to Iraq while he was serving in the Hawaii National Guard as a fueler. He was in a regular infantry unit, but the air unit needed more fuelers, so he was among 15 who were selected to assist the air unit on an 18-month deployment. David was then required to stay another 15 months as his own unit was sent to Iraq. Kawehi and Rachel only saw him twice over two years.

“When he came back he had to get to know us again,” Kawehi said. “So seeing Rachel swim made him appreciate the fact that she was a good swimmer. That’s what made him change – being deployed.”

David no longer took anything for granted, but he’d also been affected by the death he saw and danger he experienced while serving in a warzone.

“That separation from his family, it changes you,” Kawehi said. “He wasn’t the person we knew when we put him on that bus to get to the airfield. That man did not come home to us. It was a different person. And it was a good person. He never lost that goodness about him. He just was different.”


The Rodriquez family attends New Life Christian Church in Watertown where David was eager to serve.

“He was a generous man,” Kawehi said. “He always thought about other people and his biggest passion in life was to go to church and serve God.”

One of his favorite things to do was to deliver day-old bread donated to the church by Panera Bread on Arsenal Street. It was something David and Rachel did together every Sunday because Kawehi was scheduled to work those afternoons at the Fort Drum commissary.

“I really looked up to him because he helped so many people,” Rachel said. “He just loved helping people.”


David’s spirited support didn’t always produce itself in a positive manner. He served five deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As the strain of his job and the absence from his family took its toll, his enthusiasm sometimes went too far. He had high expectations for Rachel’s performances and was especially critical when she didn’t meet those standards.

When Rachel was in eighth grade, David finagled a trip home from Iraq to watch her compete in the YMCA state meet in Buffalo. He arrived from Iraq the day before the family left for the meet.

Though Rachel advanced to the finals, he reacted poorly, telling her she had wasted his time and he wanted to go home. Rachel became upset and ran off in tears.

While Kawehi searched for Rachel to console her, Patti LaBarr, another swimming mom, took David aside and spoke with him, which helped. As the Wiley Elementary School principal, she later said she doesn’t usually deal with the soldier side of deployment. She mostly sees the effect deployment has on the kids at school.

“Rachel takes criticism very well, and that’s because she got yelled at a lot by her dad,” Kawehi said. “It was a hard, hard life to live between the deployments and him being home.”


Rachel was at school when she learned her father had suffered a heart attack. She first thought she was being pulled out of class so her dad could take her snowboarding. They had discussed plans for a possible snowboarding outing and he’d told her she could skip school.

Family friend Roxanna Westlake arrived ahead of Kawehi at the high school but didn’t reveal to Rachel what had happened. Westlake had just lost her 17-year-old daughter Danielle, a 2010 Indian River graduate, in a car accident less than two months prior.

When Kawehi made it to school, she broke the news to Rachel, and they drove to Samaritan Medical Center. David spent three days in intensive care, but life support was the only thing keeping him alive. One of the nurses said she’d never seen one patient receive so many visitors, so the family was provided with a key to enter the ICU without being buzzed in each time. Visitors included soldiers and folks from church, but most were people from the swimming community.

The Rodriquez family and the Westlakes have supported each other in their grief. The Rodriquezes have also benefited from a support group on Fort Drum called Outreach Services.

David, the sixth of 11 children, grew up in Texas, the son of migrant workers. His parents have passed away, but he is survived by all 10 of his siblings. Kawehi and Rachel hadn’t met any of his family, but after David’s death two of his sisters traveled up for his memorial service.

Kawehi said that David’s heart attack even shocked the cardiologist.

“His whole life as an adult has been a body builder, so for him to drop dead of a heart attack, something was wrong deep down inside that none of us knew about,” Kawehi said. “I just think God said, ‘Come home,’ because there was nothing really that would cause him to have a heart attack.”

Kawehi and Rachel are comforted by their belief they will be reunited with David in heaven someday. Kawehi joked that when she meets God she is going to ask Him why he would take David during the prime of his life and his daughter’s teenage years.

“When I get up there to the Lord, I’m going to ask him, ‘Excuse me, but you really were cramping all of my plans here,’” Kawehi said.


David died during Blue Sharks season, and Rachel was forced to adjust.

“The support I had after my dad passed was just so great and helped me keep doing it because when he wasn’t there after my freshman year, I lost my motivation and my passion for it a little bit,” Rachel said. “He was at every meet he could be, and every practice, so without him there it was like, ‘Why am I still doing this?’”

Rachel produced her least-impressive results in 10th grade.

“Wanting to be a good swimmer for her dad is what made her swim hard,” Kawehi said. “So when he died, then you’ve got me who, I’m nothing like him, I never pushed her for the swimming. ... I could never replace that energy he had.”

“I kept swimming after he passed away, but my heart for it wasn’t there as much,” Rachel said. “Once I figured out that I needed to do it for myself and not just to make my dad happy, I found the motivation to practice harder.”

Rachel said her dad is often on her mind during swimming meets.

“When I feel myself start getting tired or running out of steam, I always think of my dad because it always helps me to think, ‘OK, Dad, this one’s for you,’” Rachel said. “I always tell him that before a race, and I always ask God to give me strength to finish. It calms me down and gives me the motivation I need to give it my all.”

David regularly repeated the phrase, “I bleed blue,” to indicate his dedication to the Indian River swimmers, whose school color is blue. Some of the team members designed T-shirts to wear during an American Heart Association walk in memory of David.

Kawehi plans to sell their house and return to her native Hawaii following Rachel’s graduation. Rachel is considering colleges on the West Coast and intends to study business law. She would like to swim in college but will choose a school based on its academic offerings.

“David would have been proud of the young lady Rachel turned out to be,” Kawehi said. “In every aspect of her life: in her walk with God, in her schooling, in her swimming and in her student government.”

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