Joshua Zuchowski, 9, was excited to swim against his friend Reese Branzell in a winter meet, but when the top young swimmer learned his friend had been hospitalized, he decided to swim for Reese -- and dedicate the win to his sick friend.
"It wasn't his fastest time, but at that moment he was swimming for Reese. He was winning for Reese," Josh's father, Jonathan Zuchowski, told HLN.
Reese Branzell, 10, started swimming at 15 months old. His mother, LeAnn Elder, says the boy from Lake Lytle, Florida, taught himself to swim proficiently at age 3 and competed in his first swim meet, the Santa Claus Swim Invitational, at 4.
"Swimming is just his thing. We found his 'thing' early I guess," said Reese's dad Derrick Branzell, in a phone interview Wednesday with HLN.
Reese typically spends two-and-a-half hours a day in the water practicing. That drive and his talent in the pool has landed him a spot at the top of the list of Florida's elite young swimmers. Also at the top of that list is Josh Zuchowski from Jupiter, Florida.
"Two and a half, three years ago we met this kid at all these meets. They befriended each other and pushed each other in a good competitive way. It didn't matter who won, they just kind of clicked," Branzell said of his son and his young friend. Josh and Reese are always ranked first and second at every swim meet.
"Every race it's like, 'Good luck, Josh', 'good luck, Reese,' they reach across the lane and shake hands," Elder said.
The last week of October, Reese complained to his dad that his hip popped and that it hurt. Branzell took Reese to the doctor the next day when the soreness hadn't gone away. That weekend, Reese hit the pool. He swam OK, but his hip was still sore. Then Reese spiked a fever.
On November 8, his parents took him to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed Reese with a virus in his hip and sent him home with instructions to take Motrin until the fever subsided. But the fever began to spike and Reese found himself back in the hospital.
Doctors diagnosed him with a bacterial infection in his hip. The young swimmer spent nine days in the hospital getting antibiotics via IV. The doctors told Reese's family he could continue to heal at home. An attempt to send Reese home with a mobile IV drip failed after an arm infection and blood clot developed. Again, Reese found himself back in the hospital.
While Reese spent his first full day at home from the hospital in a month, his swim rival Josh was hitting the pool for a weekend swim competition. Josh and his family had no idea Reese had been so sick for so long.
"When we didn't see Reese's name at the meet, we thought he just isn't healthy enough to swim, but we didn't think he was at the hospital," said Jonathan Zuchowski. Josh competed without Reese and won five gold medals.
That afternoon, Branzell, Reese's dad, got a call from Reese's swim coach.
"She said, 'Did you hear what happened?' And I said, 'No, what are you talking about?' and she said, 'This kid from Jupiter won at the swim meet and dedicated his trophy to Reese.' As soon as she said Jupiter, I knew it was Josh," Branzell said.
Josh won this year's Santa Claus Swim Invitational and gave his trophy back to the organizers along with a card for Reese. The card read, "I am so sorry that you have not been feeling well. Get well soon. So we can get back to battling in the pool. I have looked up to you since I was seven. You were an inspiration for me wanting to swim fast. I would rather get second with you at the meet then win with you absent. I won this trophy for you today. I hope to see (you) back in the pool. Your friend, Josh."
"He's a very sentimental, old soul. He could barely get the words out without crying," said Josh's dad, Zuchowski.
"I was speechless. I didn't know what to say. A 9-year-old kid did this on his own. It was amazing," said Branzell. Branzell said he then called Reese's mom, who was at home with the young swimmer.
"I thought that was amazing that he worked so hard and he got a well-earned trophy and then decided to pass it on to me," Reese said, "I think we just got a closer friendship after he did that."
"These kids have the respect that true adult athletes have that you wouldn't expect kids to understand," said Branzell.
Reese is back at home recovering. He is still getting antibiotics and working to catch up on his school work. Josh hasn't been able to meet up with Reese just yet because the Lake Lytle boy is still battling infection, but both boys' coaches and parents are working to get the boys together.
Reese is itching to get back in the pool and get back to competing, likely against Josh, for the top spot in the junior Olympics in March.