Ebersole honors memory of fallen brother

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 26, 2008

As Bern Ebersole stood on the deck of Princeton University’s DeNunzio Pool, he was hit with a confusing, emotional mixture of pride, accomplishment, and sadness.

His coach, Rob Orr, handed him one of the swimming team’s most coveted awards. It represented everything Ebersole could have hoped to accomplish in his college career. He’d worked tirelessly to become one of Princeton’s better swimmers, transforming himself from a former walk-on to valued team member. In the classroom, he’d overcome a few early stumbles and is on track to graduate with an Ivy League economics degree in June.

Only one thing kept it from being a truly joyous moment.

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The name on the trophy.

The “Big Al Award” is given each year at the meet of the same name to a Princeton swimmer who has “risen above challenges both in and out of the pool.” It’s named after Ebersole’s brother, Alan, a former Princeton swimmer who died in 2004 during a night swim.

“Every day I walk into the pool, I think about Alan and wish he was here,” Bern Ebersole said. “To put so much into it and get this is one of my proudest accomplishments.”

On the morning of the 2004 Mississippi state meet, he learned of his brother’s death. While on a trip with the Princeton swim team in Florida, Alan went swimming in the ocean with some teammates. He dove into shallow water, broke his neck and drowned.

In Alan’s memory, Bern stayed in Biloxi and competed with his St. Aloysius teammates while the rest of his family traveled to Florida to attend to matters. Bern won two state championships in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200 individual medley.

The next week, he got his first real introduction to the Princeton family. Every member of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams came to Vicksburg for Alan’s funeral and spent a week with the family.

The following year, Princeton’s annual early-December meet was renamed “The Big Al Invitational” — for Alan’s college nickname — and the team award was started in his honor.

“We’ve heard many, many stories about him. They have his towel hanging up there,” Alan and Bern’s father, Bruce Ebersole, said. “The school has been really great. (Orr) is great. He’s a special guy himself. Alan was really loved by his teammates.”

The following spring, Bern, a National Merit Scholarship finalist, had his choice of colleges. He had an offer to swim at Princeton, but still agonized over the decision to follow in Alan’s footsteps.

“I waited until the last day of acceptance for admission to send it off because I wasn’t sure that was a situation I wanted to be in. But I knew it was a great place,” Bern Ebersole said. “With one semester left, I know I don’t regret it.”

Bern initially had some trouble adjusting to the huge demands required by both Ivy League academics and swimming on the Division I level, but he persevered and worked his way up the ranks. He made Princeton’s Eastern Indoor Swimming League team, which competes in the year-ending league meet, last season.

This year, he earned the John Alan Swabey Memorial Trophy, given by teammates for “contributions through spirit, sportsmanship and improvement in swimming.” He followed that up with the Big Al Award, a similarly-themed team award that meant a lot more.

“It’s an awesome experience. Ever since I met the guys on the team they’ve been my best friends, all 50 of them. It couldn’t mean any more to me,” Bern said.

Making it even better was getting the honor in front of nearly a dozen family members. Bern said he was told he had a chance to win it, but didn’t know for sure until just a few minutes before it was given.

“It’s not really something I thought about. (Orr) came up to me about 10 minutes before and told me to make sure I had my warm-ups on. That’s when I knew,” Bern said. “I was just proud. It’s an honor to swim for Princeton and for a program that has been so good to me and my family for the last five years.”


Contact Ernest Bowker at ebowker@vicksburgpost.com