April 22, 2004 - by
Paul Erben: Triumph In The Face Of Loss

April 22, 2004

During the 2003-04 academic year, Florida State University student-athlete Tonya Rasor has been writing and collecting stories about the motivations of swimmers. One inspirational story that hits close to home is that of fellow Seminole Paul Erben. Here is his story.

Family offers love, support, and sometimes, motivation, for a swimmer. All three are true for Florida State University swimmer Paul Erben. His family included his sister, Andrea. They swam nearly every practice and every meet together until she left for college. Paul described his relationship with his sister as very close. When she went away to college at the University of North Carolina, they talked “all the time” on the phone. And now, a year later, “she’s just gone.” Andrea will never speak to or swim with Paul again. A year later, the event still seems unreal.

Andrea was a solid swimmer for the Panama City swim team. They never struggled at the same time, so when she was having trouble, Paul would encourage her. Paul said when he wasn’t performing at his best, “She would be like “slap – what are you thinking? She would set me straight. In practice, she would yell at me if I wasn’t trying. Sometimes I was just like ‘oh, you Big Sis.’ But then later I thought ‘wow that was really beneficial.'” Nonetheless, Andrea’s attitude was more about having fun than dropping time.

Andrea visited UNC with two friends, and they all fell in love with the campus. The three of them applied, thinking they wouldn’t get in, but they all did. Not wanting to give up swimming, Andrea tried to walk onto the UNC swim team, but the coach told her she wasn’t good enough. Still not defeated, she joined the club team, NCAC, and swam with them for almost a full year before making the walk-on cut. Paul recalls she was really excited the day she was issued her team warm-ups. She had made it.

Two weeks before school let out for her sophomore year, Andrea got sick. She went home, but got worse. Paul, a senior in high school at the time, watched and comforted her. In intensive care, the doctors sedated and intubated her. She couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen. Among other guesses, the Erben’s were told it could be leukemia. No one could seem to figure out what was wrong; they only knew she was really sick. Paul said Andrea was angry and just wanted to go home. Instead, she was flown to the University of Alabama-Birmingham hospital where she lay nearly unconscious for a week before passing away. May 27th, 2003. Paul rattled off the date. It will be forever etched into his mind. A few days earlier a Panama City doctor had guessed the correct diagnosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (though Andrea had no spots), and sent her the antibiotic, but by that time it was too late; the fever had already damaged her organs. North Carolina is known for having the highest rate of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but Andrea had never spent any time in the wilderness. A tick must have landed on her while she walked to class or studied on the greens at campus. Only about two percent of all cases are fatal. Paul supposes it was “just dumb luck.”

Paul hated going to practice during this time. He had to face his friends and didn’t want to talk about Andrea. Once he got in, though, he could use practice as a release. “Because when you’re swimming, you know, you are basically by yourself,” he explained. Swimming offered stability while his world was falling apart.

“I could always get into the pool, no matter what was happening.”

Although the sentiment seems clich? to him, Paul felt he should get back into the pool after his sister’s death because she would have wanted him too. “She would have said, ‘Paul, what are you doing?'” And besides, like his sister, Paul is not a quitter.

Now Paul has completed his first year of college swimming. UNC had also turned Paul down, but he had his sites set on a different school anyway. He chose Florida State University. During his freshman year, he has had to deal with the typical first-year struggles, such as balancing academics, athletics, and newfound freedom, not to mention, dealing with dealing with the loss of his sister.

“I always think about her, during practices and meets, at ACCs,” Paul said, “I think about if she were there. A lot of ‘what ifs.'” He wonders what his parents would have done about attending two conference swim meets. He wonders if his sister would have been among the few UNC girls who came to watch the men’s conference meet. We’ll never know if she would have been, but we do know that if she wasn’t, he would have been able to call her up to tell her he placed sixth with a huge best time. And we know that she would have been proud.

At the women’s Atlantic Coast Conference meet, the UNC girls had “in memory of Andrea Erben” on the backs of their t-shirts. On the last day, we all held a moment of silence. Andrea made an impact on the University of North Carolina swim team in her short amount of time. And for Paul, her inspiration will last forever.

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