Richard Connor: Gone too soon, a young man’s death leaves memories and questions

Teammates (from the left) Nick, Eli and Meredith enjoy an Oregon beach on a day off from summer training.

Twirling and flipping high, high through the air off a snow jump, Eli looked smaller than the snowboard beneath his feet. When I first met him, he was no older than 12 and did not stand five feet tall.

On a big mountain and snowboarding, the small boy was a fearless giant. He was a graceful and mind-boggling athlete.

When not in a snowboard helmet, he always wore pulled down right above his eyes a floppy wide-brimmed hat you might associate more with someone fishing. Beneath the hat the eyes sparkled above an effervescent smile and a personality that bubbled. He was also a prankster.

A coach of his once wrote a touching tribute and recalled losing a $20 bet to Eli, who bet he would wear his snowboard helmet riding in the van the entire trip driving from Sugarloaf, Maine, to Mammoth Mountain, California.

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Eli took on a star-struck glow when he’d walk up and hug my then-teenage daughter – also a competitive snowboarder and a couple of years older – unable to mask his crush on her.

They were both accomplished athletes in a sport with no room for even a hint of fear or outward insecurity. If they wavered, the mountain would get them. Icy as the slopes they conquered, they were isolated in competition as they performed alone where there are no teammates to pick up any slack on a bad day. But together, often traveling long, lonely distances in cars and vans or just standing in frigid weather for hours waiting to compete, they enjoyed the bonding of friendship and respect that sport brings to teammates.

And when they were off the mountain only those teammates could truly appreciate the highs and lows of a sport that tests individual will, desire, and dreams. If they were good they could not help imagining the Olympics. The loneliness and, yes, the invariable injuries were liabilities of those dreams. Some of those injuries were traumatic and caused almost unbearable pain.

I never once saw one of them cry.

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And so, when I heard now 20-year-old Meredith’s voice quake and waver on the phone as she began and stuttered, “This, this is tough,” my heart sunk low but not as far down as it remained for days afterward.

“Eli committed suicide last weekend,” she said.

He was 18, and on the surface at the top of his sport. He was so talented and accomplished that much-older athletes attending snowboarding camps and clinics thought he was an instructor, even though still a diminutive teenager.

As the grim news spread, Eli’s teammates, most of whom are now in college or still independently pursuing snowboarding dreams, quickly coalesced and decided to travel from all corners of the country to attend his funeral in a small country town in Vermont.

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“I have now spoken to friends and teammates I haven’t seen for many years,” my daughter said. They reunited as teammates in grief.

We know he had suffered from depression and we know that after he went missing for several days he was found dead. That’s it and that may be all.

“I can’t think about the details,” my daughter said. She does not want to go there.

Over the years I was a mere onlooker, always a few feet or many yards away, but one who marveled at the incredible athleticism, talent, strength and finesse that belied Eli’s small stature. I was bemused at his affection for my daughter. I loved his spunk.

Even with that distance from truly knowing him, I could barely sleep all week after my daughter’s phone call. I tossed and turned and awakened constantly with a start, asking all the questions we ask ourselves about someone who takes their own life. So much life ahead and now it’s over. Why? All I could remember was his youthful vitality and mirth.

I’ve focused as much as possible, particularly after watching videos of him competing, on a picture in my mind of him not in despair but free, spiraling, somersaulting through mid-air, never landing. He just keeps flying.

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It’s not something anyone wants to think about or talk about but suicide among children and teenagers has become an increasingly urgent problem, and North Texas is no exception: Cook Children’s Medical Center last month admitted a record 43 patients who had attempted suicide.

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