‘Courtney has ways to remind us that she’s here’

On a Friday afternoon in late August 2015, the Marist Women’s Water Polo team sat on the McCann pool deck quietly eating some snacks. Fatigue had given way to exhaustion, and the upbeat spirit of the team had turned sour. That’s what seven hours of relentless conditioning per day will do. This was the finale of hell-week.

As they sat there trying not to snap at one another, the familiar opening of Ellie Goulding’s smash hit ‘Love Me Like You Do’ started blaring over the speakers. Without hesitation, a 5-foot-7 freshman, who had been on campus for hardly a week, jumped to her feet. “I have a dance to this,” her teammates remember her saying.

What followed still brings a raw, genuine smile to anyone who saw it. It’s the kind of smile Courtney Fisher lived to produce. The walk-on freshman, who had pestered head coach Natalie Benson relentlessly to give her a chance throughout the recruiting process, jumped into a perfectly choreographed routine that had her coaches and teammates howling in laughter.

“You know the saying, dance like no one’s watching?” teammate Susan Cantoni asked. “That was her. She just went for it.” Throughout the year, the goofy freshman made it a habit of lifting the spirits of everyone around her.

“No matter what anybody’s mood was, she always found a way to lighten the mood and make people happy and bring positivity and energy into some very negative situations,” remembered another teammate, Ariana Singer. “And she loved to dance.”

Make no mistake, Fisher was no class clown. “She had goals for herself and was very headstrong and knew what she wanted and went after it pretty aggressively,” remembered Coach Benson. “She had a vision for herself, and she brought intention to every practice and wanted to be her best.”

Fisher makes a play in high school. Photo courtesy of Marist Athletics.

“Courtney came from a really small town and it was her dream to go D-I, and she did,” said Hope Vickers, another teammate in her freshman class. “She was going to be there no matter what.” Water polo players from the East Coast face a competitive disadvantage to those from other climates, particularly the west which has a much warmer climate in the winter. In fact this year, besides Fisher, Grace Doerfler is the only player on the roster to come from an American state besides California. But Courtney’s persistence paid off.  

“She wanted to come to Marist and she would contact us all the time, and I was like, ‘Fine, come and show me, Courtney, what you can do,’” Benson recalled. “I remember meeting her and then just really growing to respect her and appreciate her and admire what she was doing and how driven she was at such a young age.”

Fisher had the unique ability to elevate the mood of everyone around her without being distracting, yet she also outworked everyone else in the pool without causing resentment. That’s a tough balance for anyone to strike. “She didn’t play as much as other people did, but that didn’t stop her from her insane work ethic during practice,” Singer said. “She poured her heart and soul into everything that she did including water polo and school and friendship and everything.”

Fisher practicing. Photo courtesy of the Red Fox Network.

“When we didn’t have to wear weight belts, she would wear one. She was always taking the extra steps to be better and get the time in the water that she wanted,” Cantoni said. Benson remembers looking into the pool when everyone was taking a break and seeing Fisher treading water to build up her strength. Typical Courtney, she thought.

Her success translated into the classroom as well where she was studying biomedical sciences. Did she want to be an elite surgeon or famous scientist? Nope, despite certainly being capable of such lofty aspirations. “She wanted to be a pediatrician,” said her freshman year roommate, Emily Ennabi. “She just loved kids.”

Ennabi, who had the same major, remembers going to her whenever she needed help. “I’d be like, ‘Courtney, I’m really struggling with this,’ and she’d be like, ‘Oh, here it is, boom, boom boom.’ Taught it to me in five seconds. She was so smart.” Ennabi repaid her by introducing her to the garlic knot from Dominos, so it’s pretty much even.

Ennabi and Fisher pictured together.

One day, Singer and Cantoni were lying on the two beds in Courtney’s room working on a biology project. Fisher was diligently working away at her desk while the two on the beds dozed off. Over an hour later, both awoke at the same time with all three bursting into a fit of laughter when they realized what happened. Fisher let them sleep on purpose though, knowing practice that day had been particularly brutal, and she finished up her part. After their giggles subsided, Fisher helped them finish up their work. “She didn’t care that we fell asleep, she just got her stuff done and then helped us with our part of the project after we woke up,” Singer reminisced with a heartfelt grin.

“She was just a special kid, and she knew herself and knew what she wanted to do, and I think that rubbed off on the rest of the team in a really positive way,” Benson said. “She was a really unique and special kid which is why her passing is just absolutely tragic.”

Two weeks before her sophomore year was set to start, Emily Ennabi, who planned on rooming with Fisher again, was at a Friday night Yankees game with her family. A classmate, Singer, texted her that they needed to speak over the phone as soon as possible. “I just felt weird because we weren’t close like that,” remembered Ennabi. Confused, she put her phone away and tried to focus on the game; it was still in the early innings. Moments later, her phone buzzed again. Another friend had heard there had been an accident involving someone on the water polo team and wanted to know if Courtney was alright.

“I was sitting at the Yankee game and I connected Ariana’s text, and I connected that text and was just like, ‘what?’” said Ennabi. “I guess I was in shock because I texted Courtney, ‘Hey, what happened?!’ Maybe that was just a mental protection or something.” As Ennabi stared at her phone waiting for the message to be delivered, the blue shade of the iMessage turned into a green text message which confirmed her worst fear.

“Once the text went as green, I knew,” she said. “I told my mom, ‘We need to go to the car right now.’” Ennabi, dealing with her own flood of emotions, wanted to get her family out of the stadium before she broke the news. She knew what their reaction would be. “My mom considered herself (Courtney’s) second mom, and she’s very emotional. Courtney used to come over all the time and my family was incredibly close to her.” They made it into the parking lot before her mom stopped, demanding to know what was going on. “She broke down. It was so bad.”

“I was at home out there in New York, and I received a call from her former club coach out in Columbus. [The coach] said, ‘Courtney passed away,’ and I said ‘Nineteen-year-olds don’t pass away, what happened?’” recalled Benson. “I think I sat in the fetal position next to my bed in the dark for a couple hours just thinking, ‘It can’t be true. It’s not possible.’”

Hope Vickers was out shopping with her aunt for the upcoming school year when she got the call. “I just broke down, went home, locked myself in my room for three days. I didn’t come out.”

On the morning of August 12th, 2016, a semi-truck collided with a van transporting Courtney, two of her sisters, her mom, and a few athletes from Worthington Kilbourne High School, Fisher’s alma mater. They were headed to an out-of-town water polo tournament. Everyone in the van except Courtney was rushed to the hospital with “life-threatening injuries” according to the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. Courtney was pronounced dead at the scene. She was the only fatality.

Story by Emily Shapiro – Courtesy of ABC News
Courtesy of NBC-Columbus
Courtesy of the Poughkeepsie Journal

Amanda Amorosa, busy preparing for her senior year as a returning captain, was one of the first people from Marist to get a call. “Natalie [Benson] told me, and it didn’t feel real. It really, really didn’t. I couldn’t believe it,” she said, still struggling to describe the feeling.

“After that, I started calling the rest of the team. It was probably the worst day ever. I had to call every single teammate and break it every single time, and everyone reacts differently. It got harder every single phone call.” She paused, reflecting on the moment. “It was really tough, but at the same time, I’m glad I got to talk to everybody.”

The water polo team and Marist community had been shaken to its core, and Amorosa knew the team needed to be with the Fisher family. The funeral was in Ohio and had been scheduled for the first day of classes, Monday Aug. 29. “All I wanted was a bus, and I was like, ‘We’ll figure everything else out.’” She got in contact with Athletic Director Tim Murray and several members of the administration, and the school delivered to the fullest. “They gave us per-diem money for food. They put us up in a hotel. They went really above and beyond to get us all there, and I thought it was amazing and really important.”

“I have to commend Marist College and Tim Murray on getting the girls there because I know this was really rough for them,” Benson said. She had taken a job coaching the women’s water polo team at Fresno State for the upcoming school year, but still made the drive to Ohio. “As terrible as it was, it was nice to see the girls and be there for them and with them while we were all able to say goodbye to Courtney.”

“I remember being at the cemetery and we all hugged the rest of the family and I remember standing aside after, and I was still crying. Natalie [Benson] grabbed my hand and held onto it,” remembered Cantoni. “I needed that in that moment, and I think she knew that.”

Singer recalled walking into the funeral service with what felt like all eyes on her. “I remember everyone kind of looking at us as we all walked in because we all walked in as a team,” she said, but the awkward stares quickly faded. “Hearing all the amazing things her high school and childhood friends had to say about her, it was really amazing and awesome to hear those things about her.”

It was a cathartic trip for the team, one that allowed them to begin the healing process through both the formal ceremony and through informal moments with each other. “I remember when we were in Ohio and in a hotel, we all went to one of the rooms,” Cantoni said. “We were together, and I remember we were sharing memories. That kind of stuff really helps.”

Teammate Grace Doerfler said, “We were obviously sad, but we also tried to celebrate her. It was an eight hour bus ride so you can’t just sulk, so we were singing a lot of the way.” The playlist included a heavy dosage of Ellie Goulding and Justin Bieber, two artists that always made Fisher dance. It’s tough to stay down with that music playing, especially with the memory of Courtney’s legendary dance routine seared into their memories.

After this gut-wrenching set of weeks, the team returned to campus. The players had an entire semester ahead of them, along with a full water-polo season. A return to normalcy still felt out of reach to many of them.

“I struggled a lot sophomore year. I had a lot of issues about losing her. Just trying to do school work and trying to play polo and having a different coach. I was mad at everyone almost because it felt like only some people cared that she was gone and some people moved on too fast,” recalled Vickers candidly. “That’s not really the case. Everyone works through their own process, and I was just like mad at the world for a really long time.”

She was even approached by a professor who told her that talking to a counselor might help. Through conversations, Vickers has worked through the grief, as much as anyone could at least. “Susan [Cantoni] and I talk about Courtney a lot and it just kind of makes me feel a little bit better about it.”

Early on, there was a bit of a disconnect on the team since the incoming freshmen had stayed on campus during the funeral, never having known Courtney.  “It was tough. I think initially it also created a little bit of a disconnect between the returners and incoming freshmen,” said Singer. The team was also welcoming a new head coach, Chris Vidale.

“I met this team taking them to a funeral,” he remembered. This was a daunting situation for anyone to walk into, much less a head coach. It could have caused apprehensiveness and distrust within the team, but instead, he was greeted with open arms. “They could have been so many different things, but they were all just so warm. It speaks to all their characters.” It’s how they thought Courtney would have welcomed him.

From the start, the team wanted to find a way to bring her spirit into the water with them in some way. “With something like that happening and her being the kind of player and person that she was, we decided that we wanted to make that season for her,” remembered Katherine Tijerina. “We needed to find a way to keep her spirit on this team.”

Photo courtesy of Marist Athletics.

Thus began the CF17 tribute. In every game that Marist Water-Polo has taken part in since the accident, Fisher’s teammates have scribbled those four characters onto their bodies. Her initials and numbers continue to take the pool with each athlete today. “It’s just nice to be there and remind you that she’s playing with you no matter what,” Vickers said.

Fisher’s number 17 remains on the team uniforms today.

“We didn’t have anything on our gear at that point, so this was a way that she would be in every photo and a good way of communicating our remembrance of her and having a part of her on you at all times,” said Doerfler. Courtney’s name also remains on the Marist Red Foxes Water Polo roster and has been included in every box score since the accident. Her name will stay up on the site until the May of 2019, when she would have graduated.

In following seasons, Courtney’s number 17 has found its way on every piece of gear the team ordered. The men’s lacrosse team, who had lost teammate Edward Coombs in a similarly horrific incident in 2011, printed up shirts honoring Courtney for the tournament which bears Coombs’ name every year. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, at least “two-dozen” of these shirts were sent to the Fisher family. “A lot of the other teams on campus came out and supported us, like the men’s lacrosse team and women’s basketball,” said Doerfler. “It was really cool to see that everyone cared.”

On Sept. 23, nearly a month into the semester, Marist held a memorial service to honor the memory and impact Courtney had had while on campus. It was organized and run in large part by another teammate, Jocelyn McQuade. Fighting back tears throughout, she hosted the event and introduced the collection of speakers and performers.

After a lovely hymn by the Marist College Chamber Singers, Ariana Singer and Susan Cantoni took the stage together to talk about their departed friend. “Susan and I spoke together, so it was nice having her to speak with,” Singer recalled. “We tried to keep it light and more fun because that’s what we felt Courtney would have wanted because she was such a happy, bubbly, positive person, so it wasn’t too bad until the end where it got a little more emotional.”

Cantoni and Singer speak at the memorial while McQuade listens on.

They told stories about trying to trash-talk in practice after Coach Benson ordered them to be more competitive. “Eat my bubbles!” was among the most savage of their burns. There was one time that the pair was able to distract Fisher in class, a difficult feat, by writing song lyrics in the margins of each her notebook. Shockingly, they were mostly Bieber and Goulding lyrics.

Singer concluded their joint speech by saying, “Losing a best friend is never easy, and there will always be a hole in our hearts. Knowing the determined and loving person Courtney was, and knowing that her legacy will live on makes the healing process a little easier.”

After a slideshow with ‘Love Me Like You Do’ by Ellie Goulding appropriately playing in the background, Emily Ennabi took the stage to talk about what Courtney was like outside the water polo team. The story of their prank war on April Fools Day brought the house down.

Emily Ennabi speaks at the memorial.

Courtney had created an entire Common Application account to convince Ennabi that she was going to transfer. Though skeptical, Ennabi fell for the trick due to how elaborate Fisher’s account was. The real kicker was how Ennabi took revenge though: after Courtney had gone to sleep, she filled up hundreds of red solo cups with water and surrounded Courtney’s bed with them. She forgot that Courtney had to wake up at the crack of dawn for a morning lift. “She was not amused nor fooled, our room just got really wet,” Ennabi said at the memorial with an ear-to-ear smile. View the entire memorial here: https://livestream.com/MaristMediaLive/events/6379306/videos/136663683

Three years later, on what would have been her senior night, the entire Fisher family joined Cantoni, Singer, Vickers, Doerfler, and Tijerina in a celebration of their final regular season match at Marist. Ennabi and others friends of Courtney were in the stands as well. The Feb. 23 matchup against Mercyhurst University began with a ceremony honoring the seniors.

They were each introduced individually, then walked through a tunnel created by their teammates with all of their families. Before the Fisher family ducked into the tunnel, a tribute was played by Marist Athletics to Courtney. See the video created by Marist Athletics around the event here: https://goredfoxes.com/watch/?Archive=4124&type=Live

Fisher’s family was then announced to thunderous applause. As they emerged from the tunnel and began hugging Courtney’s old teammates and their families, emotions came rushing out. The bittersweet nature of any senior night was raised exponentially by the presence of the Fisher family. As everyone tried to dry their eyes for the group picture, someone called out, “Now, we got a game to win!”

The comment brought some much needed levity to the deeply emotional moment, drawing chuckles from everyone who heard it. Had Courtney been there, it’s something she might have said.

The Fisher family joins Marist senior’s and their families for an emotional senior night.

After the picture, the referees blew their whistles, and the families headed back to the stands. The Red Foxes gathered around Coach Vidale: they had a game to win. For the next four quarters, Marist put on an absolute clinic that electrified the crowd in attendance. Mercyhurst used a plethora of substitutions to try and contain the fierce attack to no avail, and it was the seniors heading the charge.

Vickers in goal was slapping shot after shot away, then launching the ball down the pool to spark fast-break opportunities. Up 2-0 in the first quarter, Tijerina, who had scored just a minute earlier, received a pass on the right side of the Mercyhurst goal. She immediately lobbed the ball over the opposing goalie where Singer was patiently waiting. She was swimming back in celebration before the opposing goalie even realized what happened.

Seniors scored 10 of the 15 goals for the Red Foxes. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Vidale made a change in goal, sending Vickers out to swim with the rest of the seniors. It was the first time she had taken the pool in a position other than goalie in college. “It felt good to be out there with my seniors,” she said with the same beaming smile she wore throughout the quarter.

The highlight of the night came with two minutes left to play when Cantoni, who had been held in check throughout the game, found space in front of the goal. She seemingly floated three-feet out of the water as she cocked her right arm back. Then, she unleashed an absolute laser into the top right hand corner of the goal that could have put a hole in the back of the net.

The Marist bench celebrates as the Fisher family looks on.

The pool-area was sent into an absolute frenzy. Even reporters sent there to cover the game were grabbing one-another and screaming in admiration: how unprofessional of them. The moment was made much more special by the bench reaction because, as the team hollered and jumped from the side of the pool, the Fisher family stood directly above them in the stands, cheering along with them. “I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy for them,” Cantoni said after the game. “But it was awesome having them here.”

Courtney Fisher was at Marist for just a year, which is staggering considering the impact she had. “She squeezed a lot of life into those nineteen years and I think she made a huge impact on people, probably more so than some people who live a full life,” said Benson. “She lived a full life in a very short period of time.”

The question no one likes to think about, but weighs on so many minds: What could have been?

“It’s sad because if she had this impact on people she knew for just one year, what kind of impact would she have had in the world, or in her community throughout her lifetime?” wondered Singer. It’s an impossible question to answer, so those that knew her have decided to appreciate the time they had with her, instead of dwelling on the time that was taken away. “Those of us who were close to her think about her always and think about ways that we are going to honor her for the rest of our lives.”

“People are doing things and doing things with Courtney in their hearts and I think that’s the kind of legacy Courtney wanted to leave and deserves to leave,” said Benson. Then she added, “Courtney has ways to remind us that she’s here.”

Amorosa, currently a professional water polo player for Lille Métropole Water Polo in France, still draws on her for inspiration. “I’m out in France now and sometimes when I don’t feel like working hard or doing something, I really do think about her,” she said. “I still wear my Marist gear with her stuff on it a lot. I like being able to talk about her when people ask because she had an amazing impact on me and [the Marist] team.”

Her number 17 is still donned by everyone on the team: their hats, suits, coats, and so much more. Each year, the team gives out an award in her honor to the freshman that best exemplifies the extraordinary person she was. This year that person was Gabi Gervasi who sits just above Courtney on the Marist roster.

Fisher pops up in some more comical ways as well. “One thing I remember all the time is that she would always be making peanut butter and jelly in the caf,” said Vickers. “Everytime I eat one, I’m like, ‘This was her favorite.’”

Fisher dressed up for halloween freshman year.

Another thing Courtney loved were the Minions. You know, those little, yellow creatures that steal almost every scene in the movie, ‘Despicable Me,’ so much so that they got a movie centered completely around them? Courtney dressed as one of them for Halloween her freshman year. If you’ve seen the movies, you know that Minions are goofy, joy-filled creatures that are also fiercely loyal and incredibly hard-working. Seems fitting.

This past summer, Natalie Benson was up in Michigan visiting some friends when they noticed purple lights streaking through the sky: a meteor shower. “It was supposed to be super late at night, but we got to see a couple and just so happened to be on the anniversary of Courtney’s passing, and her color was purple,” Benson said. “To see purple lights streaking through the sky gives you faith in something bigger than yourself and let’s you know that Courtney is still around.”

In May, Courtney Fisher will not walk across the stage and collect her diploma, but she will be there. She’ll be with her teammates as their names get called and their families cheer.  She’ll be with Amanda Amorosa in France as she dominates the French league. She’ll be with Natalie Benson when they face-off against Marist in a few weeks. She’ll be with Emily Ennabi when she goes off to dental school in the fall. In 19 years, she touched more lives than many do in a lifetime, and she’ll continue to stay with those who were lucky enough to know her, now and forever.

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