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Two years since gulf boating tragedy, lone survivor Nick Schuyler tries to keep low profile

TAMPA — Nick Schuyler, who got the world's attention when he was plucked from an overturned boat, tries to live a simple life.

He wakes up early. He goes to his job as a personal trainer at Anytime Fitness. He goes home to his dogs' wagging tails. He has barbecues with his buddies.

Once in a while, he'll catch a stranger staring from across a room. He'll look back. The stranger looks away.

"It's like, you might as well just say something at this point, because now it's awkward for everyone," Schuyler said.

Two years ago this week, Coast Guard rescuers noticed Schuyler's bright yellow jacket in rough waters of the Gulf of Mexico. He had watched three friends die, one by one. After 42 hours at sea, he was starving, dehydrated, bleeding and starting to hallucinate.

He relayed his nightmare to the Coast Guard, to his doctors, family and friends. Then he shared it with HBO's Real Sports, Oprah, Larry King, the Today Show and international TV and radio shows. He co-wrote a book detailing the ordeal.

People still ask him if he's the guy from the boat. They want to shake his hand or get his autograph. He's not sure how to react.

"It's not like I'm a ballplayer," he said. "It's not like I can be like, 'Cool!' "

But showing the pain and sadness doesn't feel right, either.

• • •

Schuyler and three others — Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, NFL free agent Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley — set out on a fishing trip in Cooper's boat the morning of Feb. 28, 2009.

Later that evening, as a storm rolled in, the men struggled to pull the anchor. They removed the line from the bow and tied it to the stern, then gunned the engine to jerk the anchor free.

Instead of pulling the anchor out, the boat became swamped and overturned, flipping the men into the water.

In the first 12 hours, they struggled to stay on the boat as waves crashed and temperatures dropped.

The first horror came when Cooper, 26, began mumbling and moaning, Schuyler recalled. His breath and pulse stopped, and the men, who had been struggling to hang on to him, let go. Then the usually soft-spoken Smith, 29, became mean and aggressive, grabbing at the men and trying to pull them into the water, according to Schuyler. Smith finally slipped off his life jacket and went under.

Schuyler and 25-year-old Bleakley, close friends since meeting at USF years earlier, clung to each other for warmth and talked to stay sane. Then, after about 24 hours together, Bleakley got quiet, Schuyler said. He died and drifted away, leaving Schuyler alone until he was found March 2.

In the months after his rescue, Schuyler got a tattoo bearing the initials of the three friends.

But aside from occasional chats with Bleakley's parents in Crystal River, his relationship with the men's families is strained.

After Schuyler's first in-depth interview on HBO's Real Sports, he got a "10-page long" text message from Cooper's wife, Rebekah, saying she was finished with the media and would have no more contact with Schuyler. She and Cooper's daughter, Delaney, have since moved to Washington state, Schuyler heard.

He talked to some of Smith's siblings, who had a hard time believing their baby brother would get angry or rough. Reached last week at her home in Richmond, Va., Smith's mother, Barbara, began to cry.

"I don't know, it still hurts like it just happened," she said. "I still have hope that Corey might come back to us. There's never going to be a closure."

She said she has never spoken to Schuyler.

"I never looked at nothing on TV, never did want to read his book," she said. She doesn't know if any of her kids have read it, either. "They try to protect me and my husband from all of that," she said. "I really don't have much to say about Nick."

• • •

Schuyler, 26, is quiet, polite and very serious.

He recently bought a home in Lutz, where he lives with the same two dogs he had before the boating accident. He's no longer with his girlfriend, who is mentioned repeatedly in his book, Not Without Hope.

He's not getting rich off the book, he insists, and he has no plans to cash in on lucrative TV interview offers, which he still gets from time to time. The money he makes from the book goes into a savings account, which he plans to use for charity, he said.

He has been organizing a flag football tournament on May 14-15 at Oscar Cooler Park in Tampa for the Nick Schuyler Foundation. The nonprofit raises money to promote boater safety and the use of EPIRBs, a tracking device the four men didn't have when the boat flipped.

He knows some people don't believe his story. He reads the blogs, has seen the comments on online news stories about the accident. Some accuse him of pushing his friends off the boat to save himself. Others say something is fishy, noting his shifting eyes during his TV interviews.

"My story has never changed," he said. "People are going to think what they want."

Schuyler still gets supportive Facebook messages and texts daily from both friends and strangers. He appreciates it but is not sure how to respond.

He has never gone to therapy and doesn't plan on it. He doesn't see the point.

"It'll always be there," he said. "It is what it is."

He turns down requests to speak at schools or support groups because he doesn't want to open "that Pandora's box." A public relations agent fields most of the requests.

His goals in life are simple. He likes running fitness boot camps, and maybe one day he might open his own gym. He hopes to get married and have his own family one day.

If that's disappointing, so be it. He cringes at something he hears a lot.

There's a reason you survived.

"I'm sorry," Schuyler said. "I can't believe that."

Two years since gulf boating tragedy, lone survivor Nick Schuyler tries to keep low profile 03/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 9:07am]
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