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KARE 11 News
By Boyd Huppert, KARE 11 News
Walking comes naturally about a year into our lives. Swimming, on the other hand, takes lessons. The Simley high school boys swimming and diving team could never have imagined a year ago how hard those lesson could be.
“Never in a million years,” says Simley coach Lynn Newton. “He seemed happy.”
Keenan Buhl had it – that quality many people spend a lifetime trying to find: an infectious smile, a fun loving disposition and a propensity to launch into one of his primal screams when he sensed his fellow swimmers were in need of a pick-me-up.
“He kind of had an energy about him that people wanted to follow him,” says Lynn. “That’s why he was one of the captains. People wanted to follow him.”
Lynn had in Keenan not only her team leader, but her best swimmer. At last year’s state meet, as a junior, Keenan collected half of Simley’s total team total points, leading his team to an 11th place finish among Class-A schools in the state.
Which makes what happened next all the more unsettling to anyone who hears the story, and exponentially worse to the friends and family who lived it.
“I came downstairs to transfer the wash and it was the first time in 17 years that my son had turned off the downstairs lights,” recalls Pam Buhl, Keenan’s mother. “So I poked my head out in the garage and I found him hanging there.”
A Regions Hospital nurse, Pam started CPR on her son while her husband Rich called 911. After three days on life support, Keenan was declared brain dead and his organs donated. At the age of seventeen, the co-captain of the Simley swimming team had taken his own life.
“It just caught us all by surprise. It just seemed too surreal to believe,” says Jeff Bauer, Keenan’s co-captain on the swimming team.
Keenan Buhl was not only Simley’s strongest swimmer, he was gifted academically; lettered in track, and played several instruments, including tuba in the marching band, where he was known to break ranks on parade routes for an asphalt version of the worm.
“He was always getting the group laughing,” says Lynn, “his little primal screams, he would do to irritate his teammates, in a good way.”
But the boy so good at raising everyone else’s spirits was struggling to find happiness himself.
“He had talked about it before, that he was depressed and he was on medication for it, but he talked about it so matter of factly,” recalls his coach.
Team co-captain Andy Bollinger, one of Keenan’s best friends, also knew Keenan has been on medication for depression, “but he never really brought it up.”
Despite all he’d accomplished, Keenan was wracked with self doubt. As Rich Buhl sees it, “His thinking was, ‘I’m not that good. I’m not the guy everyone looks up to.'”
Keenan had been seeing a therapist and psychiatrist, but until his parents found their son’s journal on his computer after his death, they could not fathom the depths of the depression to which Keenan had sunk.
“Popularity gives me no comfort, family gives me less,” Keenan wrote. “You know you don’t fit in. They just want you gone and to be rid of.” The words are almost more than his mother can bear. “He wrote that, believe it or not, right after winning those medals at state,” she says through her tears.
As Keenan’s coach from 6th grade until his death, Lynn Newton faced a daunting task.
As much as she’d have liked to dedicate the season to Keenan, grief counselors cautioned there were risks to other vulnerable teens in making Keenan the center of too much attention.
“The deal is he was sick. He was ill,” says Lynn. “He didn’t do this to try to hurt us, but we don’t want anyone else to do this either.”
Instead the team found comfort in each other — and in the pool. Despite the loss of their MVP, the boys from Simley swam to a 9-1 season, tying Lynn’s best record in 14 years as a coach.
“Everything we did just seemed to be a miracle,” says Jeff Bauer.
For the record, the Simley boys took one part of Keenan all the way to state. A group huddle and a primal scream started Simley’s every meet.
“They remember him, he’s not forgotten,” said Lynn.
Nor were Keenan’s parents forgotten. When they arrived at the state tournament – the only meet they attended all season – Pam and Rich Buhl were greeted with hugs from coach Newton, her swimmers and other parents.
“Thank you for coming,” said Lynn to a tearful Pam Buhl. “I know it was hard.”
No one could have predicted a team that started the season in such a bad place, could finish in such a good one.
Minus its best swimmer from last season, Simley finished at state two places better than last year’s 11th place.
“By a lot of standards 9th place wouldn’t be that impressive,” said Lynn, “but to know our story – happiest 9th place ever.”
It’s true another team took home the championship trophy, but for Simley, this was a season of swimming lessons for life.
(CLICK HERE to donate to the Inver Grove Heights BEST Foundation Scholarship in Keenan’s name. On this Website, click on the box “IGH BST Foundation” in the left column. Then, open and print the pdf form Donor Card and Memorial Gift Card. Be sure to DESIGNATE the donation to the “Keenan Buhl BEST Foundation Scholarship” when completing the form).