Fort Worth

They can’t watch all the time, attorney defending swim coach in drowning trial says

Two teammates of a girl who drowned during swimming practice in 2016 testified Tuesday at their coach’s negligence trial that they must have passed over her in the pool several times before seeing her.

One of those teammates, Isabella Miller, said her assistant swim coach, Tracey Anne Boyd, could not have been watching Elise Cerami, a 13-year-old member of a private swim team planning to swim with the Carroll High School varsity team that next year as a freshman.

“If someone was watching, how did someone drown that day?” Miller asked aloud.

Boyd was charged with abandonment and endangering of a child by criminal negligence, a state jail felony, in a direct indictment on June 29.

The indictment alleges that Boyd failed to “watch or observe Elise Cerami while [Cerami] was swimming” and failed to ensure that she was being supervised by someone else.

Cerami drowned June 20, 2016, during a routine swim practice at the Carroll Aquatics Center in Southlake surrounded by about 30 of her teammates and two coaches.

“No one heard her drown, no one saw her drown and no one was actively scanning the water,” Cerami’s mother, Lori Cerami, said in a drowning prevention video done for Cook Children’s Medical Center.

But Miller agreed with Boyd’s defense attorney, Sherry Armstrong, that sometimes coaches turn away from swimmers to take phone calls, talk to other coaches, to instruct a swimmer, or to get something to drink.

“They also leave the pool area sometimes,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes they have to go to the bathroom. They are human.”

During cross-examination Miller said that Cerami complained about being really tired. Cerami participated in two swim meets the weekend prior to that day’s practice and just wanted to go home and go to sleep, Miller said.

Two coaches and no lifeguards were at the swim practice and one of Boyd’s responsibilities was making sure that swimmers were well trained and safe, Miller said.

The girls used what they described as kickboards to propel themselves across the pool with their feet during warmups, Miller said. They held on to the kickboards with their hands and their heads up out of the water, Miller said.

Seeing Cerami at the bottom of the pool during that exercise would have been unlikely, Miller said. But then, Miller put up her kickboard and donned her goggles to practice her freestyle swimming form.

“I pushed off from the wall and I immediately see Elise at the bottom,” Miller said. “I dove underwater and she was pale and her lips were really blue. So I pulled her to the surface.”

Two male teammates saw Miller struggling to get Cerami on the pool deck and rushed over to help, according to Miller’s testimony. Emergency services were called and Bill Christensen, Carroll swim coach, began administering CPR until paramedics arrived, Miller said.

Another teammate, Kayley DeGrappo, told the jury that members of the swim team had no fear of the water and felt they were experienced swimmers.

Carroll ISD began staffing the aquatic center with lifeguards less than three weeks after Cerami drowned, DeGrappo testified.

“We felt like we didn’t need lifeguards and we didn’t need coaches watching us all the time,” DeGrappo said. “I don’t feel like that anymore. I watch my teammates and see where they are because they’re my friends. And I appreciate the lifeguards and the coaches watching over us.”

This story includes information from the Star-Telegram archives

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.