Stories of Survival Unite Men’s Water Polo Team
The thing members of the men’s water polo team are most thankful for this season may not be their conference title or trip to the NCAA tournament, but the close bonds with teammates that were strengthened by two near-death experiences in recent months.
“Resilience is one of our core values, but this really tested our resilience, to be honest,” said Daniel Leyson, the Child and Meisel Families Director of Men’s Water Polo.
Senior Connor Norton gave his teammates a serious scare Nov. 15, losing consciousness in the pool in the early minutes of a practice the day before the team was scheduled to leave for the conference tournament in Los Angeles. Norton spent what Leyson estimates was perhaps a minute under water and needed CPR to be revived.
Earlier this year, senior Stefan Venne, who was part of the team from 2018-21, was in a car crash in a remote part of Plumas County. The Aug. 6 crash left Venne trapped inside the car while his passenger ran to call for help. Both were airlifted to Reno, and about a week later doctors amputated Venne’s left leg below the knee.
The “Stef Strong” hats seen throughout the stands at last weekend’s NCAA tournament at UC Berkeley were just one reminder that when adversity has tested the team, its members have banded together.
Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of physical trauma.
‘A terrible vision’
No one expects anyone to have trouble in the pool at a water polo practice, where players are all exceptional swimmers, Leyson said.
So when Leyson heard a player shout a loud obscenity during a warm-up drill where players hold water polo balls and swam with their heads above water, he wondered what kind of silliness the senior — whom he described as “a character” — was getting into.
That curiosity continued when he saw the player dive under the surface of the water, until Leyson realized Levi Murtaugh was dragging the motionless body of fellow senior Connor Norton toward the edge of the water.
Players and staffers pulled Norton from the water, and Leyson yelled for someone to call 911.
“It’s a terrible vision that will remain in my mind forever — his eyes rolled back in his head and lots of liquid coming out of his mouth and nose,” Leyson said.
Leyson drew on his first-aid training, performing CPR with the help of others, like assistant coach Joey Frantz, a former lifeguard.
“I didn’t have a pulse when they pulled me out,” Norton said.
Norton came to “pretty rapidly” and began struggling to breathe, Leyson said. Paramedics arrived, but Norton continued to kick and writhe, all the while making “terrifying” noises, Leyson said.
The entire team watched as paramedics struggled to contain Norton, who kicked out of gurney leg straps and defied the efforts of a half-dozen people to hold him still.
The first responders eventually subdued Norton and transported him to Sutter Davis Hospital. Leyson said Norton’s family was involved right away.
“I was the guy who had to call his mom and say, ‘Hey, your son has had a near-drowning incident,’” Leyson said.
By the next day, Norton’s tests were showing positive results and Leyson asked the student’s parents whether they wanted him to cancel the team’s trip to Los Angeles for the Western Water Polo Association tournament, in which the Aggies, with an 8-0 record in the regular season, held the No. 1 seed.
“‘If Connor wakes up and finds out we told you not to go, he’ll kill us,’” Leyson recalled hearing back.
Playing for Connor
The following day — two days after the near-drowning — Norton was breathing on his own and was ready to be discharged from the hospital. That news sent a wave of relief through the team, Leyson said.
“Once you find out the guy’s going to be OK, the sense of relief is pretty astonishing, really,” he said. “At that point, who even cares about this conference tournament? There are so many things in life that are more important than a water polo tournament.”
While the team sought to honor Norton with their play, the tournament wasn’t easy, Leyson said, noting the double-whammy of the traumatic incident and the key player’s absence. But in the final game against UC San Diego, UC Davis came back from a two-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime, then won the conference title in the second OT.
The team jumped into the pool to celebrate, then Murtaugh darted to his bag and pulled out his phone to FaceTime Norton.
“That was a promise I made to myself,” Murtaugh said. “Once we had won, I wanted to make sure he didn’t miss anything.”
Norton, who had been watching the livestream from his parents’ home in Atwater, Merced County, was grateful to be there virtually, but it wasn’t the first time he had heard from his teammates.
When he woke up in the hospital — with no recollection of anything after feeling a “blur” and momentarily losing his vision during practice — he was surrounded by letters from every single teammate, he said.
“I stayed in touch with all of them throughout the whole tournament,” Norton said, recalling “constant texts and calls.”
When the team returned from the tournament, Norton surprised them by meeting them in Davis. Following doctors’ orders for rest, Norton stayed on the sidelines at the practices he attended and watched from the bench as the team faced off against the University of the Pacific in the opening round of the NCAAs, at UC Berkeley.
The Aggies lost 11-7, ending their season, but not their connections.
“Our whole team, coaches included, are super close,” Norton said. “My teammates — we’re so close it’s like we’re going to be friends for life.”
The team responded in similar fashion to Venne’s August accident even though the senior was no longer a member of the water polo roster at the time of the crash.
The team posed for photos in #StefStrong shirts and left tributes on social media while Venne recovered, first in Reno and then in Vallejo. A GoFundMe in his name has raised more than $120,000 from nearly 500 contributions.
His condition is continuing to improve, entries on an online journal say.
“His true grit and determination will get him to his desired goals, and we have no doubt he will succeed,” an Oct. 24 entry from his family says.
He traveled to UC Berkeley first for a game in October and again for the NCAA tournament last weekend, and was greeted both times by a bevy of shirts and hats showing support for him.
“All of those people came out of the woodwork when this happened,” said Kendall Galli, a family friend whose three children grew up swimming and playing water polo with the Venne family before attending UC Davis. She said Venne’s accident brought back connections with water polo families in Canada, New Zealand and Israel, and players from elsewhere in the WWPA conference contributed to his GoFundMe. “The community rallies around the grief and the fear, and channels all that positivity to the kid and the family.”
Venne took his first steps with a prosthetic leg Monday (Dec. 5), and is planning his final quarter of classes at UC Davis remotely, Galli said.
Leyson said the recent hardships forced upon the team have shown both the relative insignificance of their sport, but also the value of the connections it has built.
“It makes you think about the little sport you’re playing in your little world,” he said. “You get so caught up in it, and it can be changed at any moment.”
He said he’s looking forward to the off-season and is placing the successful season in the context that “Connor’s alive and Stef’s OK.”
Norton said doctors still don’t know what caused his blackout — one theory is his body had simply exhausted all its nutrients — and he thinks he’ll likely never swim alone again. But he’s already looking ahead to life after graduation and taking a slower pace.
“The whole event changed my views on how I see things,” Norton said, noting his past tendency to rush to complete homework, get back into the pool, find a job and more. “After this I’ve kind of learned to appreciate a lot more things — just appreciate slowing down a bit.”
Murtaugh — captain of the team and its only other senior — echoed that sentiment.
“Seeing one of your best friends technically, medically dead and then coming back to life really helps you see how fragile life is,” he said. “If anything, it made me a little more grateful for my friends and my family and the life that we all have.”
HONORING COACHES, PROMOTING CPR
The men’s water polo coaching staff will be honored during the Jan. 5 men’s basketball game against UC Irvine, set for 6 p.m. at the University Credit Union Center. A CPR demonstration is also planned for that ceremony.