Palm Desert water polo player’s death stuns family, friends

PALM DESERT — Blanca Morales took the first call just after 7 p.m. It was her 16-year-old son Christian, ecstatic that he had made the cut for the local summer-league water polo team.

The second call came almost three hours later. It was a coach: Christian was on the deck, pulled lifeless from the bottom of the pool. A team of paramedics was battling to revive him.

“I sent them a healthy kid. They sent him back to me dead,” his mother said. “I’m scared to go to sleep because when I wake up, I wake up to this nightmare.”

Surrounded by family and friends, Morales sat in the cluttered bedroom she shared with her only son and grieved. She blamed herself. She blamed the coaches. She took solace knowing Christian was with God.

Most of all, though, she sought answers.

Christian Morales was a teenage pinball, always bouncing around, never still. He was a three-sport athlete at Palm Desert High School, playing soccer and water polo and competing on the swim team. In class, he nailed As and Bs. He pushed his three little sisters into sports and badgered his mom into taking walks at the local park.

On Tuesday evening, Christian drove to Shadow Hills High School in Indio to try out for a summer water polo team, a club sanctioned by USA Water Polo, the national governing body for the sport. His high school coach encouraged him to join, especially if he wanted to make varsity, his mother said.

After two hours, Christian called his mother to let her know he had made the team, and planned to stay for another two hours of practice. Just after 9 p.m., coaches spotted him under the water and he was pulled out, unconscious, his mother said. He was declared dead at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital a short time later.

The Riverside County coroner’s office has yet to determine the cause of death. A spokesman said the final determination probably is weeks away as they await the results of toxicological tests.

Blanca Morales, however, said the water polo coaches came to her house Wednesday, where they offered condolences and indicated what may have been the cause.

“He had gotten out of the pool because he felt dehydrated. He got a drink of water and then went back into the pool,” his mother said one of the coaches told her. “I wanted to ask them, why did my son die?.... If a kid tells you he is dehydrated, why let him jump back in the water? That’s my question.”

Blanca Morales said she wanted to jump across the living room and scream at them, but instead she sat quietly and mostly listened. The coaches were the last ones to see her son alive. She begged them to tell her every detail about his final minutes.

The coaches did not respond to telephone calls, emails or notes left at their homes.

USA Water Polo Chief Executive Christopher Ramsey released a statement Thursday calling Morales’ death a “tragic occurrence.” The organization, based in Huntington Beach, sanctions hundreds of club teams across the country.

“Our hearts go out to his family. I believe we are best served waiting for the medical examination to be completed before further comment,” the statement said.

Desert High School Principal Robert Hicks described Christian as an energetic, friendly young man. Hicks knew him personally, a sign of how much Christian stood out on the sprawling campus.

“He was just a good kid,” Hicks said. “This is such a tragedy.”

Luis Hernandez often spent his lunch breaks playing soccer with Christian, and they’d often pal around after class. Typical teenage boys, they spend most of their time talking about sports and girls.

“He was my best friend. I still can’t believe it,” Hernandez said. “I saw him on Tuesday after summer school, when my dad came and picked me up. He said, ‘See you tomorrow.’ The was the last time I saw him.”

Roberto Chavez, the school’s junior varsity soccer coach, said Christian was best known for his nonstop hustle on defense. Chavez’s fondest memory is from the day earlier this year when Christian found out he’d made the team: “He cried with joy.”

Like many single mothers trying to hold a family together, Blanca Morales used her son’s love of sports to shield him from the allure of drugs or gangs, which have already caused the family heartache.

She said Christian’s father, a former gang member convicted of murder, has been in an Oklahoma prison since before his son was born. They had never met.

With his mother working all day, sometimes at two jobs, Christian matured quickly. He assumed the role as “king of the house,” checking on the grades of his three younger sisters, making sure they did their chores and encouraging them to do well in school and sports, his mother said.

Next to the family’s big-screen TV is a glass curio cabinet filled with his swimming, baseball, soccer and football trophies and every trinket he earned as a tot. Of all the sports he played, Christian loved swimming and water polo most of all.

He said so himself, in a letter the day before his death. With his mother working cleaning jobs and the family having barely enough money to fill the gas tank, Christian wrote to the water polo coaches asking them to waive the fees to join the club team, a request that was quickly granted.

“It was like I was born to be in the water,” he wrote. “Because that is the one and only place that I enjoy being.”