Kelowna / UBC Swimmer and the 2004 Tsunami

by Howard Tsumura, The Province

The 12-year-old girl from Kelowna awoke in the wee hours one morning, just two days after Christmas, on a yacht sailing through the tropics.

"There was a full moon that night," Hayley Pipher says, as if delivering the opening line from her favourite fairy tale.

"But I remember waking up and feeling guilty. Like 'how could I fall asleep in a moment like this?'" she continues. "Then I realized that none of this was a dream."

It was, in fact, her worst nightmare.

Back in B.C., on that same day -- Dec. 27, 2004 -- readers of The Province awoke to a chilling headline: At least 12,000 dead from waves. One million homeless after 9.0-magnitude quake in sea spawns waves.

The loss of life from the undersea earthquake which triggered the South Asian tsunami would eventually reach an estimated death toll of 230,000, making it one of the six largest natural disasters in recorded history.

Yet somehow, the little girl with the braces, still wearing the floral-print bikini bathing suit she had put on the previous morning to go snorkeling with her dad Bruce, had survived.

Years later, despite growing to a height of just 5-foot-2, she would earn a spot on the most dominant women's swim team in Canadian university history. Yet at that moment, as she wiped the sleep from her eyes, panacea had so suddenly given way to panic.

During a dream vacation to Thailand, the seventh grader had become separated from all seven members of her family, including her entire immediate family, when the tsunami ravaged the coasts of the Indian Ocean region, including the tiny island of Koh Hong.

So quickly had the water begun to rise above her ankles, that on the urging of complete strangers who also happened to be vacationing there that morning, she followed them on a climb to higher ground.

It was on their yacht which she now found herself a passenger, sailing through the night on a 14-hour junket of hope to the city of Phuket, where they imagined embassy offices might be located.

Yet the biggest question remained unanswered.

"The whole time I was just thinking about my family," Pipher says. "Are they alive? I tried not to think about it. But the whole time I kept thinking how crazy it was that I could be in this total paradise and that I could be in such a mess."

Almost two full days later, the second half of the miracle came true when she was reunited with her mom, dad, sister, brother, two aunts and an uncle.

"I think about it, honestly, pretty much every day when I wake up in the morning," explains Pipher. "It isn’t so much 'Why me? Why did I go through this?' It's more 'Why not me? Why am I OK? Why did I survive and that person on the beach didn’t?' For years, I kind of searched for my purpose."

MAKING HER OWN WAVES

"She is just so bubbly, so tiny, but she just bounces with energy and life," says Anna Leitch, a close friend of Pipher's from back home in Kelowna.

Ask anyone who knows her, and they'll tell you that her smile comes from her purpose, one born while confronting unthinkable fear for two life-altering days in the middle of a fairy tale gone horribly wrong.

"The tsunami completely changed my outlook on life," she says. "Ever since, I've honestly viewed my life as a privilege and I want to make the greatest use of it."

In the swimming pool, Pipher was part of a UBC women's team which, enroute to winning the CIS national title in February, amassed the most points in the history of the event. This past August, despite being the smallest girl in the pool, Pipher beat back the rest of the field to win the 400-metre individual medley race at the North American Challenge Cup in Mexico, fulfilling a lifetime goal of representing Canada in international competition.

"I remember when I stood on the podium, I was the same height as the people who were second and third," she laughs of taking a step up from the others to receive her gold medal. "It was pretty pathetic."

Adds UBC head coach Steve Price: "As small as she is, she swims way bigger. And the longer the race, the better she is. She is one of those special people you meet in your life."

And the confirmation that a person's truest size can never gauged by conventional measure. Instead, it is something tallied through the passionate daily pursuit of our ideals. And in that regard, some seven-plus years after her extraordinary experience, Pipher has found the tangible answers to her childhood callings.

While many of her fellow classmates at UBC ponder their future in the workforce, the second-year Pipher is so focused on her career that she quite confidently states that her major in Global Health and Nutrition in Africa is the means to one day working as an agrologist on food security issues in Tanzania.

Since arriving at UBC in the fall of 2010, she has joined the school's Africa Awareness Initiative, which serves to create a greater general awareness of the continent and its culture. She also helped found the Vancouver Mentorship Network, which promotes positive empowerment for inner city youths.

Back home in Kelowna, while still a student at Mt. Boucherie Secondary, she, Leitch, and other high school students in the city, founded the Kelowna All-Youth Empowerment Group, which puts on motivational assemblies in her home town to raise awareness of global humanitarian issues.

And in her Grade 12 year, she embarked on what would become a life-altering trip to Kenya as part of a 15-member team that helped build a boarding school for girls. It was that trip, she says, taken as an older and now empowered teenager, that gave her the greatest understanding of who she became on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM

The picture you see of Pipher in her bathing suit was taken, as she explains, "five minutes before the tsunami hit."

"It was strange, but I felt really itchy, like there were sea lice biting me," she continues of the state of the water she was standing in. "I just had this gut feeling that I had to get out of the water which is quite unusual for a young swimmer."

That morning, Pipher's brother Joel, had come down with a bout of food poisoning, and thus her mom Jude and aunt Susie had remained with him at the family's beachside resort on the mainland. If he had not been sick that morning, Pipher says, the family had been planning on travelling to another island, one which ended up being among the worst hit in Thailand.

Instead, Pipher accompanied her dad, sister Lauren, aunt Jacqui and uncle Peter on a small craft to nearby Koh Hong Island for a morning of relaxation.

When Pipher insisted on getting out the water, she, her dad and uncle all decided to go for a nature walk through the forest.

"We were in the middle of this small rainforest when we heard screams and this large whooshing noise," Pipher recounts. "The screams were coming from the beach so my dad and uncle ran to find my sister and my aunt. Two or three minutes later, the water was already up to my ankles and that is when this family approached me, asked me if I was by myself, and then said that we had to climb to higher ground."

Lauren suffered a shattered spleen and Jacqui broken ribs after being tossed up into the tree tops.

Thankfully, everyone survived, although Pipher, the youngest of the entire group, wound up being the only one alone over the next two days. 

FRIENDS FOR LIFE

"Your parents tell you not to get into a car with a stranger, but I guess it was OK to get onto a yacht," Pipher continues in a tone of incredulity. "But I could tell they were such trusting people."

They strangers who saved her, in fact, were more like angels in paradise.

Like the Piphers, they were a family of five: Dad Graham, mom Maggie, daughter Claire and sons Jonathon and Nick. From England, but living in Kuwait, they too had chosen a Christmas holiday in Thailand with a Boxing Day morning stop on Koh Hong.

Somehow, their chartered yacht had managed to roll through the tsunami unscathed. And when rescue canoes were dispatched to the island later that day, Pipher accompanied them on a ride out to the craft to begin the journey to Phuket.

Once the vessel reached its destination, the party found the relief effort already underway at a field filled with tables, each containing a different country's flag.

"Graham was helping me look, but we couldn't find a Canadian flag," says Pipher. "I remember at one point there were these billboards filled with faces (of the dead). Their eyes were out, their jaws were broken. They were covered in blood. I was looking at them, just hoping to not see my family. But Graham pulled me away. He was very protective."

Eventually, through the families efforts, Pipher's parents were notified of her safety and location.

"When they walked in, we all started crying, and when I looked in my mom's eyes, that's when I realized that I had to do something with my life."

Recently, after falling out of touch with that family, Pipher reconnected with them through Facebook.

"Maggie and I were talking about the earthquake in Sumatra, and it was bringing back some terrible memories," Pipher relates. "But then Maggie told me that out of everything that happened, I was the great memory she had. And she was glad to hear that I was doing great.

"Claire is a doctor now," she continued. "And Nick? He was eight at the time. Turns out he is a swimmer and he is competing now."

Perhaps one day they will all meet again, maybe in Tanzania, under the light of a full moon.