Fairfield Prep swimmer from Westport dies
The Fairfield Prep and Westport communities are mourning the death of Bradley Helt, 17, a popular student remembered by friends and coaches alike as a swimmer who could bring a bit of humor to even the most gruelling practice sessions.
Helt, a junior at Prep, died unexpectedly Monday night.
The school sent a memo to parents Tuesday informing them of Helt's death, and a standing-room-only crowd packed the Egan chapel on Fairfield University's campus Wednesday morning for a memorial service.
Staples High School Principal John Dodig also sent a letter to parents informing them of Helt's death and saying the school had "sufficient support staff to meet the needs of those who simply need to talk."
Matt Connelly, a senior from Trumbull and the captain of Prep's swim team, said Helt was one of the team's most popular members.
"Bradley joined the team in his freshman year," Connelly said, "and he actually made swimming practice fun, which is saying a lot."
Connelly said that Helt, a junior, had a knack for irreverent humor.
"He would do things that seemed completely inappropriate, but would make us all just break out in laughter, even the coach."
The captain said that Helt "was one of our best backstrokers."
Monday "was a normal day," Connelly said. "We had such an amazing season and to think that he was just getting his state championship ring," he said. "It was just a normal day."
Rick Hutchinson, an assistant swim coach and a guidance counselor at Prep, agreed with Connelly's assessment.
"He had an unconventional sense of humor, and I mean that in a positive way," Hutchinson said. "He was smiling all the time, which makes it all the more difficult for the guys here.
He also said that Helt was a team player in every sense of the word, and was willing to take a personal setback if it meant that the team, as a whole would benefit.
"He put aside personal successes so the team could advance," he said. "We had to replace him on the relay term, and he never complained about it. Even though it must have been difficult for him, he cheered his replacement on. A true team player."
Hutchinson said that Helt was quick to befriend the swimmers who where not major performers on the team. "Even those swimmers who were on the sidelines, so to speak, have memories of Brad reaching out to them," he said. "Brad played a significant role, certainly in the water, but also in his enthusiasm for the team. Every once in awhile, you need someone to lighten up the moment, and Brad was that person."
Even before joining the team, Helt knew many of is future teammates as well as others on the collegiate swimming circuit because he swam for two nearby YMCA swim teams, the Westport Water Rats and the Wilton Wahoos Swim Club.
The Prep swim team practices at the Fairfield University recreation complex pool. There were 46 boys on the team this season, which also includes divers. The team's biggest rival is Greenwich High School. On Jan. 28, the Prep swimmers handed GHS its first loss of the season in what was described as an impressive 107-79 road victory.
"For me, it's like losing a son," said Bruce Jaffe, Prep's head swim coach. "That's the way I feel, and that's the way the team and school feels. It's like they lost a brother. This is an incredibly tragic situation. Bradley was full of life and full of the joy of life."
Jaffe said his lasting impression of Helt was his sense of humor and ability to perform when it mattered most to the team.
"He always had a funny remark that got people to be happy to be where they were," Jaffe said. "He could always focus very clearly on the swims we needed to have and win.
At the Wednesday morning Mass in the Egan Chapel of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a chapel that's shared by both Prep and Fairfield University, Helt's teammates wore their red warmup jackets to the Mass, which was also attended by several of his YMCA teammates and other friends. There was standing room only, according to those who were there.
Prep also distributed a letter by email to parents, students and staff members in which it said that the school chaplain and guidance counselors will be on hand in the coming days to help students deal with the loss.
"The Prep Chapel, the Guidance Office and Arrupe Hall 103 are open for a place to mourn, to pray, and to support one another. Students are allowed to leave the school to go home (provided a family member will be at home), or stay and talk one-on-one or in groups to deal with their tremendous sadness and grief," the letter stated.
In his letter to parents, Principal Dodig of Staples High School said Helt attended Coleytown Middle School before going to Prep. Dodig described Helt as a "very talented swimmer" and said many Staples students swam with him on various teams or against him.
The Prep lacrosse team, playing in honor of Helt Tuesday night scored a 13-5 victory over Cheshire.
"We asked our kids if they wanted to play and they said they would play in honor of their fallen brother," coach Chris Smalkais said. "We played very inspired."