Remembering Caroline Montgomery
Mark and Caroline Montgomery in 2015 / Courtesy of the Montgomery family
By Melinda Burns
When she was a senior and star swimmer at Cate School in Carpinteria, Caroline Montgomery lost a close friend, Nick Johnson, a UCSB water polo player whom she had trained with. During a routine workout, he blacked out and died.
In Johnson’s honor, Montgomery gave a speech at Cate, saying he had inspired her to write a “personal anthem.” She spoke about the brevity of life:
Elite aquatic athletes aren’t supposed to drown … but really, is there a way any of us are supposed to die? And when we inevitably do, are we going to be proud of what we have accomplished?
Montgomery then read aloud her “anthem,” pledging to live with compassion, honesty and dependability and create my reputation as someone with strong character.
She was to live only four more years. Montgomery and her father, Mark, a noted hand surgeon, both perished in the catastrophic debris flow that engulfed their Montecito home on Jan. 9. Caroline had been visiting from Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts school in New York City where she was a senior. She and her brother Duffy, 20, and their father were swept away in a river of mud and boulders, and only Duffy survived; Caroline died in his arms as he comforted her. She was 22 years old.
“All of us are pretty crushed,” said R. Wade Ransom, the director of athletics at Cate. “It’s just a family we were all very close with. It’s devastating.”
Even as a student at Cate, Caroline Montgomery already had a reputation as “someone with strong character.” She was warm and smiling, but she was a tough kid, perfect for the sports world, Ransom said. Montgomery remains one of the best swimmers in the women’s 500-yard freestyle in Cate history; in her junior year, she helped lift the school to a league championship.
During her senior year, Montgomery was captain of the women’s water polo team; they won the first playoffs game for Cate in 20 years. Montgomery graduated from Cate with 11 varsity letters, a rare feat. The highest possible number is 12.
“There wasn’t anything Caroline wasn’t good at,” Ransom said. “She was just tenacious, a really, really hard worker, the type of worker that made everybody around her better. Water polo is a contact sport. Caroline was a tiny kid and held her own every step of the way. You were drawn to her ability in the pool to orchestrate and score, whenever the team needed her to make a play.”
Ivan Barry, Montgomery’s history teacher and swim coach at Cate, said she rose early and put in extra hours at the pool to develop stamina and speed. In her application to Barnard, he said, she wrote about her desire to make her mark as a female leader and role model – a goal she had already achieved, helping younger teammates.
“She was just a bright light here at Cate,” Barry said. “She had a wonderful balance of light-heartedness and joy of life, but a gritty and determined side to her as well. When you placed high expectations in front of her, she worked incredibly hard to meet them.”
In New York, the Columbia University Women’s Club Water Polo team is dedicating their season to Montgomery’s memory.
“The team has been affected immensely by this loss,” said Amy Gong Liu, club president. “Caroline was immensely talented and a natural leader in and out of the pool. She and I would exchange wordless glances during games and we would know exactly what we wanted the other to do. She threw 100 percent of herself into everything that she did.”
Montgomery majored in psychology at Barnard; she was doing research on exploitative medical practices under colonialism and slavery, her professors said.
“She was a practical idealist,” said Janet Jakobsen, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “She wrote, ‘I believe that hard work and care and dedication can produce a better world.’”
Montgomery took two years of Chinese; wrote for Hoot, the Barnard fashion magazine, and held several fashion internships in New York City, including one as a buyer for Kith, a trendy street-gear retailer. She dreamed of a career in the industry.
“You couldn’t peg her,” said Ann Senghas, a psychology professor and Montgomery’s advisor. “She was an activist and a feminist. She did fashion. She did water polo but she wasn’t a jock. She was a very strong writer. She really explored. She was not the kind of student who sweated about getting an A in everything.
“She was captivating. It’s not that she happened to be that way; she thought about what she was doing, and why.”
At the funeral for Caroline and her father last month, the family played the video of her speech at Cate in 2014. There she was, urging her classmates to write your own anthem, to have a beat that you can march to…
It shows you who you want to be and what you want to be able to say you’ve accomplished, because life is sudden, unpredictable and fragile.
“It was a stunning moment,” David Montgomery, Caroline’s uncle, said. “She was trying to remind all of us how precious life is and rally us to continue living it to the fullest without her. Does anything say more clearly what the world has lost?”
Caroline is survived by her mother, Catherine; her brother, Duffy, and her sister, Kate. Donations may be sent to the Mark and Caroline Montgomery Memorial Foundation at the Santa Barbara Foundation.
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.