An elite teen surfer with Olympic aspirations has died in Barbados after slamming into a reef while surfing the swells ahead of Hurricane Irma’s arrival.
Zander Venezia, 16, drowned Tuesday while out with fellow pros who flew to the Caribbean island to catch the rising waves as the Category 5 monster was moving, a local surf instructor who organized the trip told the Daily News on Thursday.
Venezia, a breakout star from Bridgetown, Barbados, had been surfing the 10-foot waves for around four hours when he got pounded by a huge “closeout” set while paddling back out, instructor Alan Burke said.
“It picked him up and sucked him under. We are presuming he hit bottom because he had bruises on his shoulder and neck. He was knocked unconscious,” Burke told The News, explaining he was not at the scene but is a close family friend.
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He said an autopsy found Venezia had water in his lungs and died from drowning, not a broken neck as first thought.
He estimated the reef floor where Venezia was found floating face down was 6 to 8 feet deep.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” Burke said. “He was like a son to me. I’ve been a mess. We’re all a mess. It’s devastating.”
Burke said fellow pro surfer Nathan Florence got to Venezia first and started to perform CPR while they were still in the water. Venezia was bleeding and not moving, he said.
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They were in a rocky area known as Boy by Box, so it took about 15 minutes just to get to shore, Burke said.
Florence, surfer Dylan Graves and paramedics continued “nonstop CPR” for the 75 minutes it took to get to a local hospital, but Venezia remained unresponsive, despite doing some breathing on his own, Burke said after first recounting the tragedy to Surfline magazine.
“I’m still in shock,” Graves said in an Instagram post Wednesday.
“I didn’t know you long, but you seemed like the nicest kid. And you were charging so hard your last session! I was so impressed. My deepest condolences to the Venezia family,” he wrote in the caption of a photo showing Venezia smiling on his board.
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Graves thanked everyone involved in the difficult rescue effort.
“The conditions were extremely challenging,” he wrote. “You all know who you are and each and every one gave it (their) all in giving Zander his best chance to live.”
Burke said Box by Box is known for its special waves created by “different shelves of reef.”
“It is a tricky, expert-only wave under those conditions. I wouldn’t advise anyone below intermediate level to go there,” Burke said.
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“Zander was more than competent enough to be there. This was just a freak accident,” he said.
Burke said he was asked to give a eulogy at Venezia’s funeral on Wednesday and plans to talk about the trip they all took to North Carolina’s Outer Banks last month for the Rip Curl Grom Search competition.
Venezia won first place, while Burke’s son, Jacob, won best maneuver.
“Zander was nonstop jovial, always cracking inside jokes,” he said.
Venezia hoped to represent his country at the 2020 Olympics.
“We aren’t sure yet what the qualifications will be, but he was definitely on track with a dream of representing Barbados in the Olympics,” Burke said.
With Caitlin Hitt
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