Of all the memories Michael Heller recalls from Menlo-Atherton's extraordinary Central Coast Section Division I water polo championship game in the fall of 2019, his fondest is of jumping into the stands afterward and sharing it with his family.
"My father told me 'great job,'" Heller said. "I gave him a huge hug and teared up a little. It was an awesome moment."
Kevin Heller, a graduate of West Point and a triathlon athlete, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) earlier in the year and by the time M-A won its first CCS water polo title in 12 years, was having difficulty communicating.
"It was one of the last times I understood what he said," Michael remembered. "He was always the biggest voice in support of the team."
Michael Heller transferred to Sacred Heart Prep soon after that historic game, in which Michael scored with no time left in regulation to send the game into overtime. M-A went on to beat Mitty for the title.
Michael would have preferred to stay at M-A and remain with his teammates, but his life had been upended and he needed extra help.
"My mother (Lesley) helped me with school," Heller said. "She was helping with the SATs and applying to colleges. All that went out the window because our family had to change our attitude about everything."
Lesley still wanted Michael to concentrate on his studies. Michael acknowledged he lost focus and found it difficult to remain positive.
Michael always knew he would attend Menlo-Atherton. His older sister Lauren, a standout volleyball player at M-A and who is now playing at Cal Lutheran, was a senior when Michael was a freshman.
It took some convincing, but his mother eventually believed he needed a change at such an important juncture of his life. Perhaps attending a smaller school would keep him on track.
Kevin's courage following his diagnosis, in which he helped lead fundraising efforts in support (the family formed GiveEmHeller) of finding a cure for the disease, inspired Michael to rethink his college choices.
In addition to his father, several other relatives were West Point graduates. Rooting for Army athletic teams was part of the family DNA.
Michael studied his choices, also researching and visiting the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy. He chose the Navy.
"I didn't think the Armed Forces were a path for me at first," Michael said. "But that summer before my junior year, I visited some places. I met the Navy water polo coaches and some of the players. I thought it was pretty cool and saw the benefits of this life path."
Michael was impressed that the Veteran's Administration helped care for his dad and how the country took care of its soldiers.
How would Kevin react?
One of the last things Kevin, who would have celebrated his 60th birthday on Easter this year, typed was "Go Army, beat Navy. Go Navy, beat everyone else." It became the family rallying cry.
Lesley remembered conversations she had with parents of Sacred Heart Prep students and water polo players.
"The idea to transfer Michael ... was a bit crazy, so late in his high school experience, so initially I said no," Lesley wrote. "But when we were invited to do the ALS Ice Bucket challenge in Kevin's honor at SHP (September 2019), I really noticed the amazing community on that campus. As things worsened for Kevin, and also Michael, I started to reconsider."
Michael knew the SHP seniors and some of the juniors because they all grew up together with the Stanford Water Polo Club since they were 12 years old.
Michael's first water polo experience was at a camp directed by Jamie Frank, currently the head coach of the SHP women's water polo team.
Over the 2019 Christmas vacation, Heller decided he wouldn't wait for a new school year and so transferred halfway through his junior year.
"It was a two-to-three-week process," Heller said. "I let my (M-A) team know and they were very supportive. They all knew the situation and understood."
Heller did not transfer because of water polo. He already committed to Navy. SHP is one of the top schools in the nation when it comes to water polo and recruiters flood the school.
"Water polo was a nice bonus," Heller said. "Coach K (Brian Kreutzkamp) is awesome. He's pushed me harder than any other coach I've had.
"I had smaller classrooms at SHP, less distractions," Heller said. "There was more support and coach K was on top of that stuff."
Said Kreutzkamp: "He's a modest kid and he knew he had to earn his spot. Part of the team is keeping your grades up. When he got around the team, he started doing what everybody was doing."
Added Lesley: "He adjusted very quickly to the new environment, and it has been the best decision we've made for Michael. One of the many blessings that came after this awful diagnosis was the love we felt from the community. Michael going to SHP is one of those blessings."
Kevin passed in January 2021. His legacy lives on. For more information, please visit his Facebook page.