Remembering a swimmer gone too soon

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It was a somber morning for the members of the Arlington Knights of Columbus "Holy Mackerels" swim team Saturday, as they honored the memory of a former teammate who passed away in February. Peter Samp, who had been a swimmer on the team since he was 8 years old, died suddenly of hydrocephalus after a brain cyst he had since birth became dislodged. He was only 18 years old.

In 2008, Peter graduated from St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington, D.C., where he participated in the "It's Academic" program, earned a perfect score on his SAT and accumulated 13 Advanced Placement credits. He was taking a year off to work as a sports writer for the Montgomery County Gazette, but was planning to attend Harvard University this fall.

To honor Peter, the Holy Mackerels have dedicated their 2009 season to his memory. Before each race, team members make a point of saying prayers for him. They hung an orange flag with the regular blue and white backstroke flags above the pool and hooked a keychain with Peter's name on it to a lane line, to keep him in the water with them.

Saturday, on what would have been his 19th birthday, the swimmers wore specially made t-shirts and swim caps in Peter's honor. The shirts had a battle cry quote from Peter - "We will crush them" - along with the diamonds logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite team. The swim caps were designed with Peter's name inside a Steelers logo.

During Saturday's ceremony, team president Phil Kiko called Peter determined, humble and "quietly inspirational" in his swimming. He then unveiled a new award in Peter's name, which will be given to one particularly hard-working swimmer at the end of every season. It will be awarded for the first time at the team's awards banquet later this month.

Although there are 230 swimmers from 121 families on the Holy Mackerels, the team prides itself on being a tight-knit group focused more on community than competition. Because many of the swimmers end up spending every summer on the team, year after year, over time the team becomes an extended family. That community atmosphere has made it all the more important to remember Peter and the role he played on the team.

"When you have a tragedy like this on a team, it needs to be remembered," Kiko said. "All his efforts should become an inspiration to others."

Everything the Holy Mackerels have done this season to remember Peter was at the request of the swimmers themselves, his former teammates.

"It's important - this was not a top down award from the coaches. Everything that's been done was generated by the swimmers," Kiko said. "There are 230 swimmers on the team and most of them knew Peter."

"All of the kids are really touched by it, really sad, and they wanted to do something tangible," said Colleen Kiko, Phil's wife, who has had three children swim for the team. "This is a tangible remembrance to help them all to heal."

Peter's parents, Rich and JoElla Samp, members of St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, were in attendance to hear about the award and say a few words about their son.

Peter's father, Rich, thanked the team for their support and talked about how Peter was never a naturally talented swimmer, but one who had to work hard and give 100 percent to develop skill. Eventually his work paid off, winning him multiple coaches' awards and the team's Christine Anderson Award, given in honor of another former swim team member who passed away. Peter also worked as a junior coach on the team for two years. Rich urged the younger swimmers to follow in Peter's determined footsteps and never to give up on their goals.

He also said he was touched by the ongoing support of the team and their efforts to honor Peter.

"We love the idea that people will remember him," Rich said. "We hope people will still remember him and the example he set and we think this is a good way for that to happen."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009