Hollique Smith Johnson walked through the front door of his Riverhead home July 14, his shirt and pants sagging and dripping wet. His mother, Angel Johnson, took one look at her son and said, “Eww! You stink!”
Moments earlier, Hollique — a 6-foot-3 13-year-old, had jumped into the Peconic River in downtown Riverhead to rescue a 12-year-old friend who had fallen into the water.
“He said, ‘Ma, I got to get in the shower; I had to jump in the Peconic,’ ” Ms. Johnson recalled Tuesday, standing on the riverfront dock where the incident occurred.
A wave of mixed emotions came over Ms. Johnson, from fear of what could have happened to relief that her son had the calmness under pressure to do what none of the other boys in the group could: jump in the water and swim.
Hollique had no choice but to learn how to swim at an early age.
When he was 2 years old, he fell out of his mother’s arms after she slipped on baby oil alongside a wave pool at Splish Splash. Hollique splashed into the water and instinctively began to dog-paddle.
“He’s been swimming like a fish ever since,” said Ms. Johnson, who admitted that she swims more “like a rock.”
Two weeks ago Hollique and a few friends were walking along the Peconic River at high tide when Hollique thought about jumping down onto a floating dock that was several feet away from the main dock. A few of the boys were ready to follow.
Jared Crump, who unlike Hollique is an average-sized kid for his age, stumbled at the edge of the dock and tumbled down into the water.
Unable to swim, Jared began to panic. Though he was just a few feet from safety, Jared was still far enough away that the other boys couldn’t just reach out to grab him. Jared couldn’t reach the dock and struggled to stay afloat. His head bobbed under the water twice.
Among the group, only Hollique could swim.
Some people nearby, thinking the boys were goofing around, took no notice of the potentially tragic turn of events.
“I saw his head go under a few times,” Hollique said. “He was drowning. So I saved him.”
He didn’t think twice about jumping in, not even taking the time to pull his cell phone out of his pocket.
“[Jared] was just crying, saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” Hollique said.
For the next few days, Jared didn’t want to leave Hollique’s side.
“Now I can’t get rid of the kid,” Ms. Johnson joked.
That Hollique was the only swimmer in the group is not all that uncommon. Drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional injury or death, according to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate was significantly higher for African Americans than for whites across all ages, the report stated. The disparity, according to the report, is highest among children between 5 and 14, with the rate for African American children nearly three times than that for white children.
Hollique, an honor student who is heading into eighth grade, has always loved the water. He surfs out in Montauk, where the waves tempt some of the biggest daredevils in the world. He’s thought about becoming a lifeguard.
In the days following the near drowning, he offered to help teach some of his friends how to swim.
Hollique’s sister Hollie, 28, is married to a man in the Coast Guard and they live in Miami. When Hollique visits, his brother-in-law shows him what it’s like to train in the water.
“He makes him learn how to swim and struggle under water,” Ms. Johnson said.
Away from the water, Hollique plays basketball, football and lacrosse. At 6-3 and still growing, he could become a familiar face on the Riverhead athletic fields in years to come.
“He has a lot of mentors, because I’m a single mom,” Ms. Johnson said. “I thank them all for helping me bring him up as a good young man.”