IONIA — Kenny Felice stepped up to the starting platform at the Ionia swimming pool. He flung his arms to stretch his back and shoulders as he had done throughout his night, his season, his career, his life.
His mind was in a couple of different places as the senior was getting ready for his final event against Williamston on Feb. 3, the 100-yard backstroke — an event he was confident he could win. Felice was confident in himself to get a win in the 200-yard individual medley, which he did, but he had a bigger confidence in this race he was about to swim.
Felice has won plenty over his career; he’s been at anchor, so to speak, for the Ionia boys swim team over the last four years.
But Felice had the memory of one of his own anchors on his mind. This one meant a lot more to him.
Before most home meets, the Bulldogs gathered in the office where co-coaches Laura Cairns and Laura Fish do their work during the day and house some equipment for the local YMCA. This room also served as a pep-talking point for the Bulldogs, with Felice leading the way.
The Jan. 13 meet against Lansing Everett was different. He looked up above the whiteboard in the room and saw a picture of Cody Nutt. Along with the photo, there was an excerpt written about Nutt’s work with the YMCA where he taught students around the area the fundamentals of the sport.
Nutt, a 2013 graduate of Ionia, was one of the top swimmers in program history. He was also a swim instructor for the local YMCA who Felice looked up to throughout his youth.
“He’s the one who taught me how to swim,” Felice said. “Obviously, the sport means a lot to me, and he meant a lot to me.”
Nutt died on April 5, 2014. He was just 19 years old.
Felice was in the fourth grade at the time of Nutt’s death. Eight years later and now a senior captain for the Bulldogs, Felice said it was his first time seeing the photo of Nutt. He wanted to honor his friend.
“He meant a lot to everybody,” Felice said. “He was a great guy, a great friend — he meant so much to this program. … He really touched my life personally. I felt it’d be fitting to honor him at one of my last races.”
Cairns said it was a coincidence that Felice saw the photo of Nutt. That coincidence led to a conversation about Felice dedicating the race in Nutt’s honor.
“He got the idea on one of the last wins of his career to dedicate a swim to (Nutt),” Cairns said. “I was 100% for that.”
As the lineup was read moments before the 100 backstroke, the public address announcer for the meet spoke into the microphone, “Ionia’s Kenny Felice is dedicating his race for a member of the Ionia community who is no longer with us.”
Felice had his moment to honor his buddy. Time to let it rip.
The race started and Felice ripped through the water like a hot knife through butter, taking a slight lead after the first of four laps in the pool. Slowly and surely, his lead grew as the yards wound down.
Felice never relinquished the lead, winning the race wire-to-wire, with a 1:12.32 finishing time. Not quite a personal record, but he’ll let it slide. The time didn’t necessarily matter at the moment, he had just earned one of the most impactful wins of his life.
He won the race by more than two seconds. sheer dominance
After Felice touched the wall, he looked up and pointed a finger skyward, adding a small fist pump. He had tears in his eyes thinking about his long-lost buddy.
“This one meant more than any other win I’ve ever had,” Felice said. “To win it in his name, and to win it so well; it really means a lot.”