‘The pool was cold, green, and dirty. He was in the water for 20 minutes.’: Teenaged friend of drowning victim starts nonprofit for awareness

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Disclaimer: This story features descriptions of child loss that may be triggering to some.

“It was a Sunday, the day before spring break ended, and I was doing my homework when my phone rang. It was my friend calling. I answered it and could tell something was wrong, not knowing what she was about to say. I remember hearing the words no one should ever hear, ‘Colt drowned,’ and my heart stopped at that moment. I was 12 years old at the time and didn’t fully understand what was going on or how it happened.

I had so many questions, 11 years later, still do, and so many unanswered. Most of all, I had no idea drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children ages 1-4 and there are several layers of protection you can take to prevent drownings. I didn’t know until it happened to Colt. Most parents don’t until it happens to them. That is why the Colt Catalina Foundation exists to change that and save lives.

I will never forget the first day I met Colt. I was in 5th grade, and school had just gotten out for the day. As I was walking to my mom’s car, I saw him sitting in his dada’s arms waiting to pick up his sissys. I remember asking Mackenzie, ‘Is that your baby brother?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ He was the cutest baby. Colt had his John Deere hat on and the biggest smile on his face, and he was so happy. From that day on, I couldn’t wait to get out of school every day to come see him and talk to him. I would always say, ‘Hi, Colt,’ and he would smile at me so big, make little noises, and flap his arms.

A boy wearing a baseball cap and a red basketball shirt
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

When he got older and started walking, he ran across the field in his cowboy hat and boots with his dog, Lucy, to pick up his sissys from school. He was always so excited to see them. Some of my favorite memories of Colt are when I would go to the ballpark, and he would be playing in the sand holding his blue bat. I would go over to my friend’s house, and he was always playing outside.

A boy wearing a baseball cap sits in the dirt holding blue baseball bat
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina
A boy holds a pail near a water fountain
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

The very last time I saw Colt, his oldest sister was standing outside holding him. I never thought it would be the last time, but I cherish every memory I had with him, especially all those times he made me smile. He was truly the most adorable little boy I ever had the pleasure of knowing. I have known the Catalina family for 13 years and am very close to Colt’s sisters, Mackenzie and Presley. All of us have gone to the same schools and have lots of mutual friends. Both are very special and mean a lot to me.

A young boy held by an adult
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

Colt Walker Catalina was born on January 18, 2008, to John and Natalie Catalina and was a little brother to Mackenzie and Presley. He was a vibrant, sweet, fun, loving little boy who stole the hearts of everyone lucky enough to know him. Many people who knew Colt loved his heavenly blue eyes, winning smile, and the sound of his infectious laugh. Colt’s favorite thing was baseball, and his favorite place was the ballpark. He would see his sisters putting their uniforms on or getting ready for practice, and he would run to the door because he knew they were going to the ballpark.

A young boy sits with his older sisters
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina
A toddler sits in a tree wearing a backwards cap
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

Some of his favorite things were monster trucks, horses, tractors, and he loved Chick-fil-A. His favorite words were YAH (yeah), Dude, Dada, Momma, Shissys (his sisters), and Nanapapa (one word). He enjoyed riding in the Jeep and would stick his head out so the wind would blow in his face. He would just smile, laugh, sing, and dance too. Colt was always very busy. He saw everything like flowers blooming, trees blooming, bugs all around, a new rock in the road…he missed nothing.

A boy wearing a blue T-shirt sits in a stroller
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina
A boy and a man sit together in a car
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

It was a cold Sunday on March 21, 2010, and Colt was staying at a relative’s house for the day with his older sister Presley (who was 7 at the time). His dad was working, and his mom and oldest sister were away at a softball game. Since it was cold, he and the other kids were watching movies all day. The relative went outside to feed the horses and asked the other adult in charge to watch the kids until they came back. Colt unknowingly followed the relative outside, and when they came back, they found him in the backyard pool. At the time, there was no fence around the pool.

It’s estimated Colt was in the water for 20 minutes before being found. First responders arrived and did CPR along with other measures, and PHI Air Medical Flight (Nurse-Michael Riffle, Flight Paramedic-Brian McCarley, and Pilot-George Egbert III) rushed him to Dell Children’s Hospital, but doctors were unable to revive him. Since it was March and not swimming season, the pool was cold, green, and dirty. Colt’s family believes the dogs knocked him into the pool as he hated the water. John and Natalie were immediately notified of the accident. Colt had just turned 2 years old when his life was cut short from an accident that was so preventable.

A boy sits shirtless in a sink for a bath
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina
A woman cuddles with a sleeping toddler
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

When Colt passed away, his death hit me hard, changed my life in so many ways, and left a hole in my heart. Five years after Colt passed, trying to process everything and watching his family suffer the unimaginable, I finally got the courage to ask his parents if I could start a nonprofit in his honor since I knew it was too hard for them. I knew I needed to do something to prevent this tragedy from happening to another family. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching a family suffer the loss of a child and brother.

I spent hours and hours researching drownings and the statistics. Learning drownings are an unrecognized, silent, daily disaster that claims the lives of thousands of children every year caught my attention. I was shocked by the facts: ‘It takes 30 seconds for a child to drown,’ ‘drowning is quick and silent,’ and most of all, it is 100% preventable. Upon doing my research, I found survival swim lessons. I knew of traditional swim lessons but never knew survival swim existed. I watched so many videos of babies and young children floating fully clothed and learning to save themselves in the event of an aquatic emergency. I was amazed by these lessons and knew this is what I wanted my goal to be for the foundation.

A boy wearing a life vest holds a sippy cup while on a man's lap
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

I know without a doubt if Colt would have had these lessons and there had been a fence around the pool, he would be here today. This is why I’m such a strong advocate for survival swim and other layers of protection. So many children’s lives have been saved and will continue to be saved because of them.

I founded the Colt Catalina Foundation for Drowning Prevention and Child Safety when I was just 17 years old. It is the biggest Drowning Prevention Foundation in Austin, TX, and surrounding areas offering survival swim lesson scholarships. My mission is to educate the public on the importance of water safety. I provide Infant Aquatics® survival swim lesson scholarships around the U.S. to those in financial need. Infant Aquatics® is the second-largest survival swim program in the world, teaching infants and young children ages six months through six years the swim-float-swim method, and I am proud to be partnered with them and be their top sponsor.

A woman stands next to a sign picturing a drowning victim
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

In addition, I advocate parents take the needed steps to prevent childhood drownings such as supervision, pool fence, pool alarm, window/door alarms, and CPR. Most importantly, I urge parents everywhere to enroll their child(ren) in survival swim lessons with the hope they can avoid becoming yet, another sobering statistic. My mission is to prevent another drowning so no other family has to suffer the unimaginable pain Colt’s family has endured.

A boy in a jersey sits on a man's lap with his mouth open
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

Because of Colt and his story, I plan on training to become an Infant Aquatic Survival® Specialist to teach life-saving self-rescue swimming skills to babies and children. I want to honor Colt and continue saving lives in his name by bringing awareness to drownings. I hope to one day put an end to childhood drownings. I don’t think there is a more rewarding career out there. I hope everyone who sees Colt’s sweet face will take drownings seriously.

Colt will never be forgotten by those who loved him. Lives have been shattered and hearts left in pieces all because of a preventable tragedy. Not a day goes by we don’t think of him. He is terribly and painfully missed…a pain that does not dull…never goes away. His family and friends love and miss him more than the world can possibly understand. In our hearts, forever our angel, Colt Walker Catalina, January 18, 2008-March 21, 2010.

A memorial for a drowning victim featuring pictures and toys
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

‘Our nightmare began when we lost you, leaving a heartache no one can ever heal. We miss you terribly and would give anything to hold you again.’ Love Dada, Momma, Mackenzie & Presley.

‘There’s a hole in our hearts time will never heal. We miss you beyond measure.’ Love Dada, Momma, Mackenzie & Presley.”

A boy wearing a jersey and a cowboy hat smiles and winks at the camera
Courtesy of Natalie Catalina

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Madison Marchegiano of Austin, Texas, founder of the Colt Catalina Foundation. You can follow their journey on Instagram or Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more powerful stories about drowning safety:

‘Is my baby okay?’ The doctor said, ‘Ma’am, you mean to tell me no one from your family contacted you yet?’ Everything went silent.’: Mom shares plea after son’s drowning

‘I ran to the laundry room. Something told me to put my hands in the washing machine. I resisted. No way. Are you kidding me? Of course he is not in the washing machine.’: Infant son dies from drowning in washing machine

‘Unexpected guests rang the doorbell. ‘Are you mom?’ I nodded, ‘Yes.’ With 10 adults, you’d assume our daughter would’ve been safe.’: Parents lose daughter in drowning accident

‘Get him out! That’s Adam!’ He slipped off the ledge and tried to yell ‘Mommy!’: Mother shares ‘nightmare’ of 5-year-old son’s near-drowning in pool full of adults as warning for parents

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