At lunchtime Wednesday, as he basked in the late spring sun in his wheelchair, Zaan Scott said he was feeling more optimistic. And that was remarkable, considering all he’d been through over the previous five weeks.
At the beginning of April, he was a 25-year-old with a fiancée he adored and a job he loved as a Capitol Hill swim instructor. Coach Z was a pool god who got frightened children out of the shallow end and taught them how to execute a perfect freestyle stroke. He was a coach, mentor and confidant. And he was equally effective with adults who had lied for years about being able to swim.
He and Jamese Harvey, 25, had saved enough money for their wedding and started talking about a trip to Jamaica, too.
With one bullet, all that was lost April 9.
Never miss a local story.
Scott was robbed on his way home from work, right after stopping at a Southeast Washington corner store to buy Harvey the caramel turtles she loved. A panicked gunman fired, hitting Scott in the spine and leaving him paralyzed. But worse was coming for this fiercely devoted couple.
The night he was shot, Scott heard the pop of the weapon, but didn’t feel pain at first. The gunman went through his pockets, he said, then ran. Scott dragged himself out of the street and onto the sidewalk, remembering the courage he asked his students to summon in the pool.
He spent two weeks in the hospital, then almost three weeks at a rehab center. Harvey, the pool manager at the Wilson Aquatic Center in Northwest Washington, held doors open, sponge-bathed him and lifted his limp legs into a car. The bullet had shattered his sixth vertebrae and severed half of his spinal cord. Doctors considered removing the slug too risky, so they left it in his back.
“But I can see a silver lining, you know?” Scott said Wednesday, shedding his thick lap blanket in the unseasonable May heat. “Maybe I’ll be able to teach from the side of the pool. Not beginners, but more advanced students. Or maybe I’ll go back to school. Something in science or math.”
The couple had even started talking about their wedding again. And the trip to Jamaica.
I went to see them at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Greenbelt, Md. That was where they were staying while they looked for a wheelchair-accessible apartment they could afford.
“It looks like a hospital room in there,” Harvey said.
I loved talking to them. He was quiet, with a dry sense of humor and an awkward formality. She was a boisterous over-sharer who laughed a lot.
“He shook my hand after our first date,” she said.
“It wasn’t a date,” he deadpanned.
Eye roll, her.
She got his attention two years ago at the William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center, a Capitol Hill swim center where they worked, by pushing him into the pool after a staff meeting.
“He wasn’t talking. I knew I had to make him talk,” she said, laughing.
They were both survivors. She spent time as a kid in foster care. He spent time as a kid in a homeless shelter.
“Now, I’m just a foster kid in love,” she declared.
Eye roll, him.
Scott didn’t know how to swim until he turned 20. Before that, he was a football god. He played at Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School, 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, all muscle. He graduated and went to South Carolina State for one year, but decided that the Navy would be a better fit.
When he returned to D.C. before enlisting, he knew he’d have to learn to swim before basic training. Another Capitol Hill pool god, Maurice Edim, taught him. And in that blue-tiled haven, Scott found his calling.
“I didn’t know I was good with kids, good at teaching, until I was in that pool,” he said. “And I loved it. I don’t like lifeguarding. But teaching - I love teaching.”
So he got a job with the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation and instantly amassed a cult following among Capitol Hill parents.
He taught Amy Nazarov’s 9-year-old son, Jake, to swim.
“Our son had long been reluctant to leave the shallow end of the pool, and we consider Zaan to be the person who helped him shed the last of that fear,” said Nazarov, one of the parents who helped Scott with his medical expenses after the robbery. “He was always patient with Jake, but he didn’t coddle him either, and that combination of traits worked really well with Jake and with tons of other kids who learned swimming from Zaan.”
Scott’s humility was refreshing in a town of self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing lawmakers, lawyers and lobbyists, she said.
“He did it with zero fanfare and total focus, though he often did it without his glasses on so he would squint at you in this endearing way trying to make out who you were,” she said.
Coach Z was on his way home from a day at the pool that Sunday in April. Harvey had just ordered dinner for them from Uber Eats when she got the call that he had been shot right in front of their apartment complex on Southern Avenue.
“He was just there in the street, and I felt so helpless,” she said. “Like someone had just ripped my heart out of my chest and was holding it out in front of me.”
After the crazy ambulance ride and all the blood and the surgery, and interviews with four detectives, she was finally able to be by his side.
“Did the food come?” he deadpanned.
“That was the moment. At that moment, when his first words were a joke, that was when I thought, ‘I want to have his children,’ “ she said.
She wasn’t leaving him. And they knew it wasn’t going to be a fairy-tale life.
The folks at the city rec department were totally supportive, promising to find alternative work for Scott. Harvey got enough unpaid leave from the Wilson pool to be able to take care of him for weeks.
But other challenges piled up quickly. Their landlord didn’t want to let them out of their lease, even though Scott couldn’t even get into the apartment in his wheelchair.
“The way they treated us was disgusting,” Harvey said. It wasn’t until she had a lawyer contact the landlords that they eventually let her pay the May rent and get out.
Then the battles over medical costs began. The hospital bills were covered. It was the rehab costs that were crushing them. That’s where their health insurance didn’t help.
Scott was in pain and struggling to accept all the things he could no longer do. It was in rehab that he cried for the first time.
Harvey was learning from the nurses how to handle his bladder bag, his medications, his legs.
“But I constantly have to be careful not to emasculate him when he’s in such a vulnerable state,” she said.
One of the parents who loved Coach Z said he should start a GoFundMe page to help with the rehab expenses. So Harvey wrote something, they posted photos of Scott in the pool and in the hospital and in rehab. In a week, they had raised $15,000, mostly in small increments from families and friends grateful for Scott’s help in their lives.
So Wednesday started out feeling good.
Scott rolled himself to breakfast, then rolled himself back into the room.
Harvey was researching cars that he would be able to drive with a joystick, and they were excited about that idea, especially because Scott loved video games.
And he really wanted to get outside, out of the chilly air conditioning of the hotel room and into the sunshine. And he wanted to go to the mall.
His mom, Rhiki Scott, showed up. She rubbed his head when she got to the lobby.
“I’m so proud of him, the way he has handled all this,” she said. She cried that first day in rehab, too. But hers were tears of joy that he was still alive.
“He rolled up to the piano they had there and just started playing,” she said. “And I realized how lucky we were. We could have been planning something else after that night, like a funeral.”
After he’d enjoyed the sun, they all went back to the room. Scott wanted to change his shirt before going to the mall, and Harvey tapped her wristwatch. “It’s time for your medication,” she said.
She helped him change, and they rolled out to the parking lot.
My colleague Marvin Joseph, a Washington Post photographer, was taking pictures of the routine they’ve become so good at. Scott lifted himself up and swung his torso into the car, Harvey moved his legs.
Then he suddenly collapsed in her arms. “Zaan? Zaan! Zaan!” Harvey cried as he went limp. She dragged his body out of the seat and into the parking lot. “You can’t breathe?” she screamed.
Joseph dropped his cameras and called 911. Harvey began doing CPR. Rhiki Scott began praying.
After some confusion about the exact location of the Courtyard, the paramedics arrived, put Scott into an ambulance and took off.
Harvey texted me a few hours later.
“Zaan died at 4 p.m.,” she wrote. “My heart is enormously heavy.”
D.C. police said they are waiting for an autopsy report. At that point, the robbery may become a homicide - one that took five weeks to unfold.
On Thursday, Harvey woke up, surrounded by friends and family, but feeling so alone.
“I’m like an open wound,” she said. “Everything hurts.”
Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.