Broward High Schools

Westminster Academy water polo coach Denise Israels gets Courage Award at All-Broward ceremony

Miami Herald sportswriter George Richards presents Westminster Academy girls’ water polo coach Denise Israels with the Courage Award at the All-Broward athletic awards Friday, May 22, 2015 at the Signature Grand in Davie.
Miami Herald sportswriter George Richards presents Westminster Academy girls’ water polo coach Denise Israels with the Courage Award at the All-Broward athletic awards Friday, May 22, 2015 at the Signature Grand in Davie. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Victoria Miklausich and her younger sister, Caroline, have always known they got their strength, tenacity and athleticism from their mother, Denise, a former swimmer at Oklahoma University and the girls’ water polo coach at Fort Lauderdale’s Westminster Academy.

What they’ve come to learn in the last year — along with Denise Israels’ doctors — is that nothing, not even a severe stroke, could ever keep their mom from doing what she loves. On Friday morning, Israels, 50, was honored by the Miami Herald with the Leo Suarez/Walter Krietsch Courage Award at the All-Broward Athletic Awards banquet.

Twelve months ago, mere hours after feeling ill at Victoria’s bridal shower, Denise was battling for her life on a hospital bed at Broward Health North. Her brain was literally at war with itself. An artery on the left side of her brain was blocked while the right side was bleeding. Victoria, 26, and Caroline, 20, Broward’s Class 5A-1A Girls’ Athlete of the Year in 2013, prepared for the worst.

“They couldn’t give her [blood clot medication] because she was already bleeding, so basically they induced a coma and said her brain had to heal itself,” Victoria said. “We were sitting for 10 to 12 days in intensive care with her connected to a breathing machine, not knowing [if she was going to make it].”

Israels, a woman in tip-top shape who exercised nearly every day, fought through that. But because there were parts of her brain that had gone without blood during the ordeal, Victoria said her mother sustained “massive brain damage.”

At first Israels couldn’t speak or move her left leg or left arm — a problem considering she was left-handed. But little by little, with intensive rehabilitation, she has relearned how to do everything she used to do from scratch, including learning how to write with her right hand.

“She went from barely being able to sit up on her own to slowly weaning herself off of her walker,” Victoria said. “ She’s gone from needing a sitter at all times of the day, to being able to be home by herself and get a bowl of cereal and pour the milk.

“She does miracles every day.”

The first of those big miracles happened in September when Israels showed up in a wheelchair at Westminster Academy to assist aquatics director Sam Freas in coaching the swim team.

“The kids were shocked, but obviously pleasantly surprised to see her,” Freas said. “They never thought in a million years she would be coming right back.”

Not only was Israels back, but by the spring she was ready to coach her girls’ team once again and shed the wheelchair. With the help of Victoria, the boys’ coach and others, Denise fought to get the words out but coached the Lions to yet another district title before they lost a hard-fought state play-in game to Boca St. Andrew’s 6-5 last month.

“The fact she came through that and said I still want to coach — that was her dedication to those kids,” Victoria said. “ She had seen those kids come from early middle school and really wanted to see them graduate.

“From a daughter’s standpoint, I was little fearful in the beginning because I definitely think stress had a lot to do with what happened. She internalizes a whole lot and was disappointed with the way the 2014 season ended. I didn’t want her to go through that again and have another issue. But she just shined.”

Her doctors, Victoria said, remain blown away by how quickly and how much Israels has recovered. They never expected her to walk again, let alone drive. And the fight to get her left arm fully mobile again continues. Victoria said her mom does laps in her kitchen, circling the island center, to practice her balance.

While physically Israel has come a long way, her daughters know their mother is not the same woman she used to be. The even-keeled, serious person she once was is gone, replaced by a much more emotional person her daughters rarely saw growing up.

“So if something is a little funny, she’s hysterically laughing, and something is a little sad, she’ll cry,” said Victoria, who said her mother has received phone calls, letters and visits over the past year from swimming friends all over the world wanting to show support. “I kind of feel like she’s getting a chance to live a different life, a life where she can express her emotions and a life where she can be happy if she wants. She’s different, and I truly believe it’s for the better.”

Still, Victoria said, she and Caroline sometimes get sad. They realize the way their mother raised them — to be strong — was for times like these. Now, they are her caretakers.

“You don’t realize she made you the way she made you until you have to be stronger,” Victoria said. “And she made my sister and I stronger than we knew.”

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