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A Huge Ripple Effect

McColl's Water Polo Career Was Spawned by Brother's Drowning

January 12, 2002|DAN ARRITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly nine years have passed since Evan's lifeless body was lifted from the backyard swimming pool. Not a day goes by that Meridith McColl doesn't think back to the haunting images from that warm summer afternoon.

McColl shivered in the cold air as she stood alongside the pool recently at Saddleback College, vividly recalling the day her 15-month-old brother drowned. One minute he was taking a nap at their grandparents' home in San Diego, the next he was gone forever.

"It's kind of hard not to think about it every day," said McColl, who was a second-grader at the time. "It was something that changed our lives so much."

If McColl and her three other brothers had never set foot near a body of water after such a horrific experience, it would be perfectly understandable. But their parents made sure that didn't happen.

The McColls encouraged their children to become even more at ease in the water and introduced them to water sports. The thought was, "If they felt safe swimming in the waves, they would feel comfortable in a swimming pool," said Emily McColl, Meridith's mother.

Meridith shined the brightest, quickly developing into one of the top high school girls' water polo goalkeepers in the nation. "She probably never would have played water polo if it wasn't for [Evan's death]," Emily said.

McColl, a junior at Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley High, is a member of the U.S. national youth team and was selected All-Southern Section Division I last season.

Bob Nealy was impressed with McColl's abilities before he took the Capistrano Valley coaching job last summer, and since then, he's become equally impressed with her spirit.

"She's got the best attitude of any kid I've coached," he said. "She's a coach's dream."

McColl also has what her mother calls "goalkeeper's mentality"--she thrives under pressure and refuses to back down when the situation looks dire. Emily said it was those instincts that helped Meridith sidestep a fear of water.

"She wasn't going to let the water win again," Emily said.

Emily and her husband, Duncan McColl, rarely discuss Evan's accident. Most of Meridith's closest friends don't even know. But as time passes, the family finds the tragedy easier to recount.

It began as a routine visit to Duncan's parents, while Emily attended a CPR class near the family's home in San Diego. Halfway through the class, Emily said she felt uneasy and left. When she reached home, several frantic phone messages awaited. Evan had awakened from a nap and quietly opened a back door leading to the swimming pool. He slipped under water without a sound.

"He wasn't talking yet, but very mobile, very active," Emily said. "He didn't know how dangerous it was to open that door, but he knew [how to open it]."

It was only a matter of seconds before he was discovered by one of his older brothers. Paramedics were called. A helicopter landed on the street and Evan clung to life as he was whisked away, but he never regained consciousness.

"I remember everything, picture for picture, word for word," Meridith said of that day. "I don't feel like I've forgotten a detail."

The commotion from the helicopter, coupled with the McColls' close ties to their San Diego community--Emily and Duncan are Presbyterian ministers-- focused an uncomfortable media spotlight on the family, Emily said. They soon moved to New Jersey, where they attempted to put the sorrow and guilt behind them.

"When we moved, we thought it was good to go off as a family and be alone," Emily said. After nearly four years, the McColls were ready to return to San Diego. When they did, they immediately enrolled their children in a junior lifeguard program.

"We came back and started them right up," Emily said.

Soon, the McColl children were asked to join a local age-group water polo team. Meridith, one of two girls on the team, quickly emerged as the starting goalkeeper.

Two years later, she was invited to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she received in-depth training. The next year, she was invited back to Colorado Springs, and last year she was selected to the U.S. national youth team, for which she's the No. 1 goalkeeper.

While McColl was in junior high, her family moved to Mission Viejo. She made an immediate impact at Capistrano Valley as a freshman, helping the Cougars finish second in the South Coast League and advance to the section quarterfinals.

With McColl minding the net and senior Amber Stachowski, the Division I player of the year, providing the offense, Capistrano Valley won the league title and advanced to the playoff semifinals last year.

The Cougars couldn't help but be excited about their prospects for this season, but last spring, Amber's sister, junior Aimee Stachowski, transferred to Santa Margarita.

Then, last summer, their coach, Jason Lynch, took a job at Newport Harbor.

"[The loss of Lynch] was very unexpected," McColl said. "We got along really well and I assumed he was going to be coaching here again."

Three other starters have returned this season. Capistrano Valley (4-8) lost to Carlsbad, 6-3, and to Riverside Arlington, 9-6, Friday in the first day of the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, which includes many of the best teams in the state. McColl had 15 saves against Carlsbad.

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