“Flying in, seeing all the mountains and the awesome landscape,” Nick Balenger recalls from his wheelchair in his room at the rehab center, where the Kukui nut lei he wore on the island now hangs. “It was magical.”
They all got in the water on Big Beach around noon. With Nick and Steve still swimming, Sylvie and Alex returned to their towels but shortly thereafter noticed a commotion after a dune buggy skirted past them toward a group huddled near the water. Then another buggy tracked through. This time, Sylvie followed. As she approached the throng, she could tell that the “long, skinny foot” visible among the bystanders belonged to her prone son.
Lifeguards strapped Balenger to a gurney, then drove him to a parking lot to wait for an ambulance. Nick gauged his discomfort level at 10 out of 10 and begged for a painkiller. Sylvie rode in the front of the ambulance and Alex drove his shaken dad in the rental car.
Balenger’s C4 and C5 vertebrae were dislocated. Doctors could realign his spine without further damaging his spinal cord. Two days later, they fused the vertebrae because his ligaments were so damaged it was the only way they could stabilize him.
Nick Balenger celebrated his 17th birthday, July 31, in an intensive care unit. One of his gifts, which he was supposed to pick out himself, was a silver chain on which to keep his state championship ring. He lost 23 pounds in eight days.
Even after returning to Washington, his parents were still finding sand in his hair and ears, a reminder of the unforgettable.
“I remember every second,” said Nick, who never got around to using the baseball glove he had packed. “I remember my neck getting crunched. I remember floating around in the water waiting for my dad to get to me. He pulled me out of the water and I just remember the waves hitting me as we were going out. It seemed like forever for him to get me out of the water.
“Luckily, I took a big breath before I went underwater and got slammed. My dad saved my life. He pulled me out. If he wasn’t there, I would have been not here.”
Steve Balenger has his own term to describe the family’s first day on the beach: “Hell in paradise.”
The long return home
For more than two weeks after the accident, Nick was unable to move his lower extremities or abdomen. Two Lake Braddock teammates — best friends Mitch Spille and Nick McIntyre — had flown to Hawaii to support Balenger and to read to him his text messages and tap out his replies.
After an 18-day stay in the ICU and protracted haggling with an insurance company over transporting him to the East Coast, Balenger arrived at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 13 after a three-leg flight.
About 80 Lake Braddock students and parents, many clad in school colors purple and gold, lined the entrance ramp to the rehab facility that afternoon, some waving get-well signs, shaking cowbells and blowing noisemakers.