Zander Venezia, a talented 16-year-old junior pro surfer from Bridgetown, Barbados, died while surfing mega-swell waves as powerful Hurricane Irma approached the Caribbean on Tuesday. His sister is now speaking out about her brother and the bright talent that the surfing community — and those who loved him — lost.
“Zander was a positive boy, who always had a smile on his face that was contagious,” Bella Venezia, 19, tells PEOPLE. “He loved his family and friends so much and knew how proud we all were of him and his accomplishments.”
On September 5, Zander was surfing on the east coast of Barbados with a group of other pre-professional and professional surfers, including Nathan Florence, Dylan Graves, Balaram Stack and photographers Daniel Russo and Jimmy Wilson. While he was on the waves, Zander was knocked from his board into shallow water where he hit his head on a reef that knocked him unconscious.
An ocean rescue took place and fellow surfers tried desperately to revive him in the water and get him to shore, according to Bella. Nonstop CPR was performed on Zander for 75 minutes as he was transported to the hospital, where he later died.
“The family is not doing well at all,” Bella says, adding that her boyfriend has supported her since the tragedy. “My parents are staying strong and we have all of our family and extended family.”
Zander began surfing at just 5 years old, and was dedicated to perfecting his craft. As to why he stuck with surfing at such a young age, only those who grab a board to hit the waves would know, says his father, Louis Venezia.
“Only a surfer knows the feeling,” Louis says. “The feel of the water, the adrenaline of catching the wave, completing maneuvers and just the joy of each wave.”
Zander learned to ride waves exceptionally well, and won multiple national championships. He became a U-12 National Champion and took the Open Juniors division in the NSSA East Coast Regional Championships in April, and completed a six-year-goal of winning the $250 top prize at the Rip Curl Grom Search in North Carolina just two weeks ago. Zander was set to compete in the national final at Steamer Lane in October, and also had aspirations to represent Barbados in the 2020 Olympic games.
The family has since created a hashtag, #livelikezander, for anyone who wants to share memories of their “lost boy.” A funeral is planned for September 13, and a paddle out will be scheduled soon after.
Bella says her brother had an outgoing and adventurous personality, and wasn’t afraid to show affection and love to family and friends. Thanks to this, and to the strong surfing community in Barbados, the family has a large support system made up of people who loved Zander.
“We are all so close in the water and all have made very close friendships over the years,” Bella says. “Our surfing community is exceptionally close and this tragedy has affected the entire island; whether it be family or friends to teachers and doctors, cousins of cousins, all of Barbados is hurting.”
The last time Bella talked to her brother was on Sunday, just before she left Barbados to return to school at Sheridan College in Canada. As she gave him a final embrace before her departure, Bella says there was something different about saying farewell.
“I normally cry saying goodbye to my mom, but I hugged Zander last and burst into tears. I guess that was some sort of my way to have a goodbye to him,” Bella says. “But I would prefer to have had another one.”