Coach Chris Nowviskie impatiently checked his watch at the Pompano Beach Aquatic Center while four junior lifeguards dragged faceless mannequins to safety. One of his lifeguards was 45 minutes late for training for Worlds, the big leagues of lifeguard competitions.
Seconds later, Nowviskie looked up to see the young man he’d been waiting for lying face-up on the deck. His shaggy, sun-bleached hair draped the tiles, and his body was red with a sunburn from surfing all day. Irritated, Nowviskie demanded an explanation. The young man looked up and asked, “What’s the first rule of surf training, Coach?” He smiled and answered himself: “When there’s surf, we don’t train.”
South Florida's surfing and lifeguard communities are still in shock this week over Konnor Katzmark's death. The 22-year-old had won several national titles in lifeguarding competitions while mentoring younger athletes and working as a professional lifeguard in Deerfield Beach and Hollywood. On June 25, while he was bait-fishing off a bridge, Katzmark was fatally struck by a car.
A surfer by training, Katzmark joined the Pompano Beach Junior Lifeguard Program at 9 years old. Over the next nine years, he won many titles in the paddleboard race and distance run events.
"Being a surfer," Nowviskie says, "he had this ability to read the water and navigate through big surf. He was challenged so much at a young age surfing in the heaviest, most dangerous conditions in the ocean, and that translated into him being able to be that much faster and more experienced than his peers in lifesaving sport."
In 2012, Katzmark and another junior lifeguard, Julia Schulte, became the core of the nation's inaugural youth team, representing the United States at the World Lifesaving Championships in Adelaide, Australia. Once the two returned, the City of Pompano Beach honored their achievements with a proclamation, naming them the grand marshals of the Yuletide Parade.
As an only child to Albert and Judith Katzmark, the young water athlete stayed local, attending Broward College. After graduation, he became a pro lifeguard in Deerfield Beach and Hollywood. Once again, he rose through the ranks, winning regional and national championships in the 2K beach run, the rescue board race, and Ironguard.
But for Katzmark, it was never about winning: Sportsmanship always mattered more. During one lifeguard tournament, he was entered in an event called beach flag, in which eight competitors sprint in sand to capture one of seven flags. If two competitors grab the flag at the same time, hand placement decides the winner, so those who lose often contest the decision.
"It's typical of all beach flaggers to throw a fit and make fools of themselves," Nowviskie says of one competition where Katzmark had lost, "but even though Konnor was visibly frustrated, by the time he walked up to the judge, Konnor self-corrected, shook hands, and thanked him for his honesty."
Even years later, Nowviskie saw his other students follow the young man's lead. Katzmark's mother, Judith, says tearfully: "He always used to say to me, 'I love to compete, but like you always told me, the best part of competing is having fun.'"
Adds Jim McCrady, a lieutenant for Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue: "When you get someone who's good at sports, they often do it for themselves, like an ego trip. Then you get people who do it for the pure joy of it. They get so much happiness out of it that they want to share their happiness with other people. Konnor was that guy."
Shannon Snell, a 20-year-old competitive lifeguard who grew up with Katzmark, recalls his unwavering mentorship. "He often pushed me on the paddleboard, taught me to catch the next wave, and told me where to go in the lineup," she says fondly. "He taught me everything I know. He inspired me to do lifesaving."
Snell has continued to compete nationally and credits Katzmark as a motivator. But beyond his career as a lifeguard, his colleagues, friends, and family members say there was nothing more quintessentially Konnor than his positive attitude and fearlessness.
During the Worlds competition in Australia, Schulte's father took the two teens to explore a beach off the coast. They picked up foam boards from the local surf shop, paddled out, and came across a rock ledge.
"While my dad and I were still looking at the rocks deciding if it was safe, Konnor had already jumped off and was halfway down the ocean with the biggest smile," she says. "He never had any doubts about who he was."
It's unclear exactly what happened June 25 as Katzmark fished off a bridge. No one has been charged in the fatal accident.
Update 7/6: According to a Pompano Beach Police incident report, Katzmark was crossing near 800 S. Federal Hwy. when a northbound car hit him. The driver, a young woman, stopped to help until Pompano Beach Fire Rescue responded. Katzmark was pronounced dead at the scene. Detectives at the Broward Sheriff's Office are conducting an investigation.
But since his passing, the community of Pompano Beach, lifeguards and residents included, have posted tributes in memory of Katzmark across social media. This past weekend was the viewing and funeral, during which attendees were asked not to wear black.
"Only board shorts, T-shirts, and sundresses to celebrate his life," says Nemia Schulte, Julia's mother and president of the Pompano Beach Junior Lifeguard program. "There were 300 or 400 people there, among them around 250 kids, like a reunion of lifeguards and junior lifeguards from another era."
This Saturday, surfers, lifeguards, and friends will meet for a paddle-out vigil at 6 a.m. at Second Street and Pompano Beach Boulevard. It's a tradition for fallen lifeguards rooted in Hawaiian culture, Nowviskie says.
"It's a way to celebrate his life in the environment he was most comfortable in," the coach says.
Even amid their grief, the lifeguard and surfing communities have tried to remember what Katzmark represented for them. "There's also a community brought together, continuing his memory any way we can," Julia Schulte says. "We miss him and will always miss him."
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