In Memory of Matt: Water Safety Education an 'Energizer' for Couple Who Lost Son

They can't turn back time, but John and Kathy Kocher can try to shield any families from the heartbreak they felt when their 15-year-old son Matthew died after drowning in Lake Michigan last summer.

John Kocher wears a bracelet with the words, "flip, float, follow" as advice for what to do if in distress in water.
John Kocher wears a bracelet with the words, "flip, float, follow" as advice for what to do if in distress in water.
Kathy and John Kocher didn't know the perils of the water in which their 15-year-old son Matthew swam.

If they had, maybe it could have saved his life, Kathy said.

The 6-foot-4 athlete at Victor J. Andrew High School always played it safe, they said. He couldn't have known that a rip current would pull him under the waist-deep water of Lake Michigan last July. Matthew died after being pulled from the water at a beach in New Buffalo, Michigan.

Almost a year later, still the news just doesn't make sense to his parents.

"He was safe, very focused, he wasn't a big risk taker," Kathy Kocher said. 

The Andrew community was rocked by the loss of the three-sport athlete, and his parents felt inspired to do ... something ... in his memory. They have partnered with Bob Pratt and Dave Benjamin, of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance to educate Andrew students on water safety.

Pratt Wednesday delivered several presentations to students, stressing key points of water safety, drowning awareness and survival. 

Since 2010, 340 people have drowned in the Great Lakes—half in Lake Michigan, and half of those occurring in the lake’s southern end, Pratt said. 

"It's an extremely dangerous part of the lake," Pratt said. 

Each presentation is crafted for the audience at hand, Pratt said, with Andrew's material geared toward adolescent males. He noted that males are four times more likely to drown than females, as males often overestimate their own swimming ability by 50 percent. 

Pratt urged students to play it as safe as possible in the water, and if caught in a moment of stress, to call upon a simple phrase to hold steady while waiting for help: Flip, Float, Follow.

Flip onto your back to get your mouth out of the water.
Float, instead of struggling and expending precious energy.
Follow—don't fight the current. You won't win.

Pratt also provided tips for students to recognize when another swimmer is in distress—with discouragement to jump to the rescue themselves.

"Unless you're a trained professional, you have no business being in the water," Pratt said.

Drowning doesn't appear as dramatic as some might think, he warned. Instead, it's swift and sudden. Teens should look around them for flotation aids, such as a an empty cooler or a Nerf football, and extend it to the swimmer in trouble as help until rescue arrives.

Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki admired the Kochers' courage in confronting their loss publicly, and helping others to avoid the same tragedy. Zabrocki's oldest granddaughter last summer was carried away from shore by a current, to be swept up and carried to safety by her father.

"I give these folks a lot of credit," Zabrocki said. "Kids think they're invincible. There's always something you don't think of, until it's too late."

Kathy and John Kocher said they hope to bring the presentation to additional audiences, as the beach seasons sets in.

"He would say, 'get up and do something,'" said John, a counselor and coach at Richards High School. "It's an energizer for us, a reason to do things in Matt's memory."

Matthew had so much ahead of him, Kathy said, and she wishes she could have protected him from what laid beneath the water.

"We didn't know about the dangers," she said. "If we had, he would have, too."

Get more info about the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project


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