The Balengers’ summer trip to Hawaii was supposed to be a homecoming, birthday party, graduation gift and family hurrah all in one, the last vacation they would take while the boys were still boys.
Nick Balenger, a rising senior pitcher on Lake Braddock’s state championship baseball team with a sense of humor as sneaky as his emerging fastball, would turn 17 on Maui, where he was born. He and brother Alex, older by a year, had not visited Hawaii since they were toddlers.
A family member had given Steve and Sylvie Balenger, the boys’ parents, donated airline miles for two for the 50th birthdays they each celebrated in May.
The eagerly awaited visit to an alluring locale that for years had been a cherished and idyllic family reference point ended on the Balengers’ first full day on the island, at Makena Beach, or “Big Beach,” the same beach where the boys would play 15 years ago.
On July 25, with Steve Balenger standing about seven feet away and Nick’s mother and brother sunbathing nearby, Nick misjudged the depth of the water while somersaulting into a wave in the Pacific Ocean. He hit sand.
Steve Balenger splashed over and with help from others dragged his son’s limp, gritty body from the surf.
“Dad,” Nick said in a low, scared voice, “I can’t feel my legs.”
After 21/2 weeks in intensive care at Maui Memorial Medical Center — the same hospital where he was born — Balenger flew home last month by cramped air ambulance and was immediately transported to MedStar National Rehabilitation Network in Northwest Washington, where he will remain indefinitely.
The pitcher, who this summer in his last outing for an elite travel team struck out 13 batters at a tournament in Tennessee and who would have been the defending state champion’s likely No. 1 starter next spring, only recently regained limited movement in the fingers on his throwing hand. He can move two fingers on his left.
Instead of starting the senior year bustle at his Fairfax County high school this month and considering colleges that had begun to recruit him, Balenger spends his days in acute rehabilitation therapy, trying to re-teach his muscles simple movements through excruciating exercises that leave him spent by late afternoon.
Instead of playing baseball or swimming in the pool in his Burke back yard, Balenger tries to regain skills by playing games such as blowing a Ping-Pong ball across a table with a straw. Instead of typing or writing his homework, the National Honor Society member dictates his thoughts into voice recognition software for an education coordinator at the rehabilitation facility.
“The funny thing is,” Balenger said softly in the deliberate, trail-off cadence he has taken on since the accident, “back when I wasn’t injured, I would dream about flying or living in a mansion or swimming on the beach. Something that I wasn’t able to do. And now I dream about walking in school, or picking my nose, I don’t know. Any normal, little thing.
“My goals and my dreams have gotten a lot lower. I thought that was interesting.”
‘I remember every second’
The day of the accident, a Wednesday, the Balengers had jogged or done yoga on the beach at about 7:45 a.m. Nick got in a workout. “Its 7am here.. #earlybird,” he had tweeted that morning, several hours after posting a picture of a Hawaiian sunset.
“Flying in, seeing all the mountains and the awesome landscape,” Nick Balenger recalls from his wheelchair in his room at the rehab center, where the Kukui nut lei he wore on the island now hangs. “It was magical.”
They all got in the water on Big Beach around noon. With Nick and Steve still swimming, Sylvie and Alex returned to their towels but shortly thereafter noticed a commotion after a dune buggy skirted past them toward a group huddled near the water. Then another buggy tracked through. This time, Sylvie followed. As she approached the throng, she could tell that the “long, skinny foot” visible among the bystanders belonged to her prone son.
Lifeguards strapped Balenger to a gurney, then drove him to a parking lot to wait for an ambulance. Nick gauged his discomfort level at 10 out of 10 and begged for a painkiller. Sylvie rode in the front of the ambulance and Alex drove his shaken dad in the rental car.
Balenger’s C4 and C5 vertebrae were dislocated. Doctors could realign his spine without further damaging his spinal cord. Two days later, they fused the vertebrae because his ligaments were so damaged it was the only way they could stabilize him.
Nick Balenger celebrated his 17th birthday, July 31, in an intensive care unit. One of his gifts, which he was supposed to pick out himself, was a silver chain on which to keep his state championship ring. He lost 23 pounds in eight days.
Even after returning to Washington, his parents were still finding sand in his hair and ears, a reminder of the unforgettable.