Three Students Nearly Drowned During Football Camp

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Three student-athletes associated with the West Valley (Alaska) Wolfpack football program were hospitalized last week after they nearly drowned during a camp at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

According to the Fairbanks NBC affiliate, the students were doing an exercise depicted in the movie “The Program.” The exercise involves swimming back and forth in a pool, doing push-ups, sit-ups, mountain climbers, and then attempting to remove a sweater and put it back on while in the deep end of the pool.

An anonymous witness, referred to as Anonymous Witness 1, told NBC that about six students were involved in the incident, and a number of them didn’t know how to swim. The witness said that Wolfpack head coach Roy Hessner told six kids to get in the pool with the sweaters on.

“We got in on the wall, and then he [Hessner] told us to push off. For like the first five or like 10 seconds everyone was like good I guess,” the witness said. “Then like 15 seconds in, people were like just struggling, like struggling, struggling. There is kids screaming at the top of their lungs for help and everything and I was like kind of closer to the wall. So I just grabbed onto the wall because I just didn’t want to drown. So I got onto the wall and the lifeguard that was there she was trying to get in, but our head coach he told her, ‘It’s ok, they’ve got it on their own.’ ”

Another witness, referred to as Anonymous Witness 2, said the coach knew that some of the kids didn’t know how to swim.

In the end, three of the students required CPR after they were pulled from the water.

According to a press release that was put out by the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, all three students were transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for treatment and overnight observation. According to the press office at UAF, at least one student sank to the bottom. 

“When I got out of the pool, and then I saw the lifeguard, she jumped in and then she came back up and she said she couldn’t grab him,” Anonymous Witness 1 said. “At first I started crying, because I just didn’t know what was going on. They pulled one kid out and his arms were just stiff, he was just stiff. He wasn’t moving. I just started bawling my eyes out cause I genuinely thought he was dead. When they kept pulling more kids out, they pulled the last kid out, I thought he was dead, because he was purple and he wasn’t moving at all. Everyone there was pretty much bawling their eyes out and either mad or just sad that this was going on.”

The second witness said that the students were working out for over an hour and a half before they were told to put the sweaters on. The incident was part of a three-day camp that was listed as mandatory on the West Valley High School website. That language contradicts Alaska Schools Activities Association, which states:

“The coach or other personnel representing the school is prohibited from requiring any athlete to participate in an out-of-season sport, training program, or travel team as a condition of selection for the in-season team.”

Both witnesses who spoke to NBC said that coach Hessner never jumped in the pool to help.

“He wasn’t doing anything, like anything at all,” said Anonymous Witness 1. “I saw him on the phone, but then after that he didn’t do anything. I didn’t see him help any, because pretty much every coach that was there was either going into the water grabbing a kid or they were outside the pool talking to kids calming them down, and he just didn’t talk to any kids at all. He wasn’t trying to help any of the kids.”

The Anchor Daily this week reported that a new acting head coach has been installed at West Valley, and all three students who were hospitalized have now been released.

Norm Davis was named acting head coach Wednesday. The district said Davis “is a teacher at University Park Elementary and has helped coach football and wrestling at West Valley for many years.”

The Anchor Daily said it was unclear whether Hessner, a retired Marine who was named football head coach in December, remains on the coaching staff or employed at West Valley High. Hessner's Twitter bio lists him as: "Retired Marine, Crossfit Level 2, Crossfit and USAW Olympic weightlifting coach, and Precision Nutrition Level 1, Leadership Instructor@The Program."

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