By Brian Biggane
BOYNTON BEACH — Near the end of a lengthy interview with Ken and Cat Hilgendorf concerning the recent death of their daughter Capri Grotowski, Ken summed up all the two had said previously: “She was our hero.”
They are not alone. Mrs. Grotowski, who spent her formative years on Hypoluxo Island in Lantana before becoming a star beach volleyball player and spent the last eight years coaching the sport at Florida Atlantic University, died June 25 at age 38 after being treated for breast cancer for almost a decade.
“It never slowed her down,” said FAU volleyball coach and best friend Fernanda Nelson. “She made us better every day. It didn’t matter if she was going through chemo or in a bad depression, she came in with a smile every day ready to work.
“It was pretty impressive. She was a very special person,” Nelson said.
“Our student-athletes loved playing for her,” FAU Athletic Director Brian White said. “She was all about all the right things, and as a result they were all about all the right things. They had as strong a culture as any program I’ve ever been around.”
Ken Hilgendorf described his daughter as “kind of a tomboy” growing up who decided at one point that “grape soda wasn’t healthy, so she stopped drinking it.” She excelled in sports at Lake Worth High School, playing volleyball, softball and soccer — and didn’t allow anyone to push her around.
“She had a soccer game at Palm Beach Lakes and an opponent came up from behind and knocked her down,” he remembered. “Capri got herself up and near the end of the game she got her back.”
Named to the elite Super Six in volleyball, she earned a scholarship to Northwood University (now Keiser University) in West Palm Beach, earning MVP honors all four years. She then played the pro circuit before turning to coaching at FAU, taking over a beach volleyball program in 2014 that Nelson had begun only a year before.
It was during orientation that first year that the cancer was diagnosed.
“She had gone to her doctor nine months prior and told him she had a lump in her breast and he told her there was nothing to worry about,” Ken Hilgendorf said. “She trusted this doctor, and he basically took my daughter from me.”
Asked how she handled that news, he said, “Her oncologist said it perfectly. The reason why she loved coaching so much is she never identified herself as a patient or a victim. She just fought the fight.”
“Capri was one of those special people,” said Dave Stewart, next-door neighbor to her family on Hypoluxo Island and former Lantana mayor. “Very considerate, very caring, very ambitious.”
In a short time she built the FAU program into a powerhouse. The Lady Owls boasted four All-Americans during her tenure — including two last season, when they reached the 16-team NCAA Tournament and beat powerhouse Stanford before losing to eventual champion Southern Cal.
Her eight-year record was 128-86.
“The success they’ve had is unprecedented for any program here athletically,” White said, “and they also led the athletic department in team GPA. Just a very impressive group to be around.”
As the years passed and the hoped-for remedies failed to materialize, Mrs. Grotowski looked into dendritic cell treatment as a possible cure. Told her cancer was too far advanced for her to undergo the treatment in the U.S., she and her mom traveled to Cologne, Germany, for five weeks and had it done by the doctor who created it.
Mrs. Grotowski, who resided in Boynton Beach, leaves behind her husband, Steve, a former England Olympic volleyball player who was her assistant coach and is now head coach at FAU; along with son Cayd, 11, and daughter Kyah, 8, as well as her parents and older brother, Ken Jr.
FAU will hold a celebration of life to honor her from 1-3 p.m. on Sept. 11.
“She was an inspiration to all of us,” Fernanda Nelson said. “The way she handled the cancer, sometimes you wouldn’t remember she had it. She was just incredible.”