I came across this story by chance. I was assigned a quick, 250-word write-up for an annual report about two students' summer internship. It's the kind of thing I've written countless times. I showed up at Sheltering Arms to interview the internship supervisors, thinking I'd be in and out in 10 minutes. But 10 minutes in, they said, "Hold on, do you know Cole's story?" I didn't. An hour later, we were still talking, and that afternoon, I was setting up time to talk to Cole and his internship partner, Ethan.
Cole's story is one of unbelievable resilience. It took a while to get it published, and in that time, it came full circle.
On a warm summer afternoon in August 2011, Cole Sydnor, ’17, was out on the James River with three friends. He was 16 years old, enjoying the newfound freedom that came with the driver’s license he got the day before.
The friends crossed the river at one of their favorite spots, the pipeline near 14th Street.
“It’s kind of isolated,” Sydnor said, “and there are a couple of rock features that are a lot of fun.”
“Don’t people get hurt out on the rocks?” Sydnor’s mom, Kelly, had asked that morning. “Haven’t people died down there?”
Sydnor, full of teenage swagger, reassured her. “Mom, I’m a great swimmer. I’m gonna be fine,” he told her before he left.
After lounging in the sun, the group started to make its way back toward downtown. Sydnor dove into the water, hoping to get enough momentum to push through the swirling rapids. Instead, he struck his head on a submerged rock.
He knew a set of rapids were swirling just a few yards downriver. He started kicking his legs to swim out of its path. Only his body didn’t respond.
Sydnor was a lifelong swimmer, completely at ease in the water. Confusion set in. He opened his eyes — something he never did in the murky waters of the James. He saw his arms floating in front of him and the water surrounding him quickly turning a cloudy red.
His only friend who hadn’t yet crossed the river saw Sydnor drifting downstream toward the rapids and snapped into action. A Boy Scout with water safety training, he jumped in and pulled Sydnor from the water. Another friend grabbed his cell phone — something the boys almost never brought to the river — and called 911. The third, a high school track star, raced to meet the paramedics at the road, feet bare and bloodied from running on the pipeline grates.
All Sydnor could think was, “Damn it. Mom was right.”
This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2017 issue of University of Richmond Magazine.