Natalie McGurn must have been 7 years old at the time, a nervous little girl at her first St. Rose swim practice. All these years later, she can still picture this smiling, happy face coming over to welcome and reassure her.
“She was so happy to be there, and I was so scared,” McGurn said. “She just gave me that smile and said, ‘Everything is OK. This is so much fun!’ I went home and said, ‘Mom, there’s this amazing girl! Her name is Natalie, too.’ ”
That amazing girl was Natalie Lewis, who grew up to be one of the best swimmers this area has produced. She was a champion at every level, from St. Rose of Lima School to Nardin Academy to the Tonawanda Titans and then the University of Richmond, where she later became operations director of a Division I women’s basketball program.
Everyone remembers Natalie as someone with a happy smile and an infectious personality, a natural beauty who shined a light on the world. People saw her as an angel, a religious young woman who lived up to the Catholic ideal of putting others before yourself.
She died last Friday evening at 24, in a field outside Richmond, Va., in a horrific hot-air balloon disaster that was broadcast over and over to the world. It was an unspeakable tragedy for her family, friends and fiancé, Michael Dougher, and for the two communities that Natalie loved so well – her native Buffalo and Richmond.
So how do you make sense of a death that seems unfair and beyond comprehension, an example of God taking the best ones too soon? It comes down to faith, to a loving, religious family – her parents, Trish and Evan, her brother, Evan Jr., and sister Caroline – reaching beyond their grief and rejoicing in her wonderful life.
“There’s no greater pain you could possibly experience,” said her mother, Trish. “I thought, ‘I must be a horrible parent that God would take away our greatest treasure.’ My husband asked, ‘What did we do wrong?’ She did nothing wrong. Some people have to live until they’re 85 or 90 to get their work done. Hers was done at 24.”
“She wanted everyone to do their best,” Trish said. “And so after horrible, dark nights, where it seemed so uncontrollable, it all came clear to me and Evan that we are so fortunate. Somehow these two average people were chosen to be her parents. We said, ‘We have known her from the day she was born to the day she died. What a gift.’ ”
“She was born on 10-10-1989, 10 pounds, at 10 o’clock,” Trish said. “Everything was a 10. My husband and I were like, ‘She was perfect,’ and she really was. One of those kids you didn’t want to go to preschool because you enjoyed their company so much. She was one of those kids who never teased her sister and brother. She’s lifted us all up.”
They named her Natalie after the Nativity. Evan Sr. liked to say that every day was like Christmas in their family. Natalie loved the Josh Groban song, “Believe.” It has this refrain:
“When it seems that we have lost our way
We find ourselves again on Christmas Day.”
Natalie’s death hit me hard. The Lewises are old family friends. Our children grew up together. The girls danced and socialized and attended St. Rose of Lima in North Buffalo. After dance recitals, I used to tell Natalie she was the most perfect one. My daughter said Natalie danced with “an athlete’s precision.”
And what an athlete! She zipped through the pool like a torpedo at those Catholic grade school swim meets. I told people she might go to the Olympics some day. She loved to hear me talk about covering the Games and meeting her heroes, U.S. stars like Amanda Beard and Brooke Bennett.
Natalie went on to Nardin, where she was MVP of the All-Catholic meet as a freshman. She won it three years in a row and set records that stand to this day. She won medals at the Empire Games and was a star with the Titans. Through it all, she remained the same kind soul who made other kids feel important.
“There’s not a person out there who didn’t love her,” said Mike Szyprowski, who coached Natalie with the Titans and is now an assistant at Canisius College. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but she was that person you wanted to be around. You wanted to be her friend.”
“You wanted her on a relay,” Szyprowski said, “because of how she brought up the level of everyone around her. She was always so excited if somebody came off with their best time. She was always one of the first to high-five you and tell how well you did.”
You’d have thought such talent would inspire envy in other kids. Instead it made them to want to be just like her.
“No one was ever jealous of her,” McGurn said. “Everyone just wanted to walk in her footsteps.”
McGurn did just that, following Natalie to Nardin. She “shadowed” Natalie, who was a freshman at the time.
“She made me fall in love with it,” McGurn said. “Everyone already knew that smile. Natalie could light up a room. Whether you were younger or older, she wanted to be your friend and support you. I know she was at every one of my basketball games, with her face painted green and white. She wanted everybody at Nardin to be that champion.”
Richmond had won six straight Atlantic 10 women’s swim titles when Natalie arrived on scholarship in 2007. She could have gone to a lesser program and been a star. But she chose a place where she could be an average member of the team, reveling in the achievements of superior athletes who would push her.
“She told me, ‘Mom, I’m so glad I came to Richmond, because I am so NOT the best swimmer on this team,’ ” Trish Lewis recalled. “‘But I want to be the one who tries the most.”
Richmond won three A-10 titles in Natalie’s four years. The Spiders have won eight of nine under Matt Barany, the coach who recruited Natalie. She was a two-time captain, an A-10 champ in the 400 free relay, a scholar-athlete, a member of student government.
“I knew she wasn’t going to be the fastest girl on the team,” Barany said Wednesday, “but that’s not going to prevent her from making a profound impact. We can tell you how she impacted us in a thousand ways. She just wanted to work. There wasn’t a day off in her book.”
Barany said her impact went beyond the campus. Natalie, who graduated with a bachelor’s in art history and a minor in elementary education, was a substitute teacher in Richmond and spent a semester as a student teacher. She was active in the church.
She stayed in Richmond to student-teach after graduating in 2011. That October, the director of basketball operations for women’s basketball resigned. Coach Michael Schafer was in a bind. The season was two weeks away. The head of ops handled countless administrative duties, like arranging hotels, flights and meals.
“He told me, ‘It was an impossible job. No one could do it,’ ” Trish said. “People said, ‘Natalie could do it.’ ”
Schafer met with Natalie. The first thing he thought was, ‘She does not know basketball.’ The second thing he realized that was hiring her would change the culture of the entire athletic department.
Natalie threw herself into the job the way she did everything. She gave it every ounce of herself, and she reached out to people. She was like a den mother on road trips. When seniors graduated, she wrote each one a handwritten letter to let them know how much they were appreciated.
“I went yesterday to see her office and her meticulous records,” Trish said. “Everything was done for summer camp. She left everything in perfect shape for the next person.”
As Schafer predicted, Natalie shed her special light through the entire department. She got the basketball players to attend swim meets. She arranged softball games. And every day, she would stop by to visit Barany, her former swim coach, in his office.
She did it for the final time Friday. She baked four dozen cookies and brought them to the office. Before eating one, you had to go congratulate Barany, who would receive his MBA from Richmond on Saturday. He was slated to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, later Saturday for a project on solar energy.
“She was in my office almost all day on Friday,” Barany said. “In and out, in and out. At the end of the day, she kept smiling. She said, ‘I’m happy. I’m just so happy!’
“She didn’t need to say it,” he said, choking back tears, “but it was good to hear. Normally, when one of us was about to travel, we’d hug at the end of the day. She gave me a hug and said, ‘I’m proud of you. I love you and be careful.’ She told me to be careful, because she thought I was going to a dangerous place.”
A few hours after that hug, Natalie sent her mom a text before the balloon launched. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m going up! Up!’ ” Trish said. “There’s so much symbolism. She was so pure in God, her whole life.”
Her daughter never made it back alive. Natalie and Ginny Doyle, the associate head coach of the women’s basketball team, were killed along with the pilot. Trish said she takes comfort in the fact that Natalie’s body was the first one discovered and that she had her engagement ring on.
Trish said the balloon launched from the birthplace of the legendary racehorse Secretariat on a stunningly beautiful farm. Dougher, a Canisius High graduate, insisted on seeing the place where his fiancée’s body was found.
“It was near this beautiful patch of land,” Trish said. “We looked up, and it was called Loving Lane. I took a picture of it. That’s all she did was love. Michael had already put a heart around it with string.”
Matt Barany postponed his flight to Africa on Saturday. He and the university community spent the week grieving. They held memorials for Natalie and Ginny Doyle. The families spoke. Trish joked about her and Evan being average. Far from it. Barany called them a rare family. Natalie’s light was a reflection of them.
“The crazy thing is, she is the one who gives me clarity today,” Barany said. “Am I ever going to live a day without thinking, ‘How would Natalie do it?’ That was her greatest gift. Whether she was hand-making a card, baking something, or sending someone a special note, she was always thinking about other people.
“I can’t tell you how much she loved Buffalo,” he said. “I really can’t. Trish told me the other day, ‘I was so reluctant to let her leave Buffalo,’ and ... ”
Barany was sobbing. He could barely get the words out.
“ ... I’m just so thankful that she did. Richmond is a better place because Natalie Lewis lived here for seven years. My life and all her teammates’ lives will never be the same. She was 24, but she gave people enough happiness for a lifetime.”