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Grief for passing of ‘earth angel’ who worked to save lives

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She lived with pain for years, but this didn’t stop much-loved infant swimming instructor Rikki Kotzen, 31, from dedicating her adult life to saving lives and being everyone’s “earth angel”.

As her devastated husband Ryan, 34, buried his wife of one year hours before Rosh Hashanah last week, he thought about all she had been through and lamented that she would never get to do the things they dreamt of doing together.

In spite of hiding it well, Rikki, 31, wasn’t a well woman. She had struggled with her health for years and had overcome many bouts of serious ill health including breast cancer and Lupus, a chronic, long-term, autoimmune illness that causes inflammation and pain in many parts of the body.

Although she had spent 38 days in hospital during lockdown in June and July, news of her sudden and untimely passing last Thursday during the early hours of the morning still came as a shock.

“It was totally unexpected. She was getting better, and things were looking up,” said Ryan.

The day before she died, she had experienced a lot of pain, but towards the evening he said she felt better.

“We ate dinner, watched TV, she spoke to her friends and family, and then we kissed each other and said good night.” He said.

She didn’t wake up.

“I’m a shattered mess. She meant the world to me,” said Ryan, “Being surrounded by family and friends and reading all the beautiful messages about how she touched people’s lives has helped.”

Tributes have continued to pour in for the popular, energetic, and dedicated swimming instructor who friends this week described as an “earth angel” who would go out of her way to help others.

“Rikki would circle the earth a million times for her friends,” said Nicole Tozzi one of Rikki’s best friends. “She had a magnetic energy that would pull you in and draw out the absolute best in you.”

“Riks didn’t have it easy growing up, but in spite of setbacks, nothing slowed her down or caused her to give up. She was a fighter and a warrior,” she said.

As a child, Tozzi said Rikki suffered a near fatal drowning incident. “Instead of remaining fearful of the water, she turned water safety into her life’s work. She vowed never to let another child be in a similar life-threatening situation if she could help it.”

Ryan said that when Rikki heard about the swimming programme in America which taught water-survival skills it was an “ah ha” moment for her.

He encouraged and helped her to set up the Infant Aquatics Academy which has taught hundreds of children water-survival skills from the age of six months up. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the business. However, Rikki was looking forward to re-opening next week after Yom Kippur.

“Rikki lived to help people,” said Tozzi. “I could fill books with the amazing things she has done. When a woman who worked with Rikki’s late mom was struggling financially, Rikki, then in her mid-twenties, financially supported her with no strings attached and nothing in return. She did it to honour her mother’s memory.”

Another close friend, Lee-Anne Levy, told the SA Jewish Report that Rikki organised her entire wedding.

“Rikki and I got engaged on the same day. She knew we didn’t have the means for a wedding, so she took it upon herself to plan my entire wedding from beginning to end. She even bought my wedding dress.”

“While planning her own wedding, she made sure that my husband and I had the wedding of our dreams. She thought of everything right down to the leopard-print chair covers and wedding cake.”

Levy said Rikki used her experience in event planning to involve the community, from arranging the cake to the photographer and videographer. “She even swopped swimming lessons in exchange for things. Nothing was too much for her, she wanted everything to be perfect, and it was.”

During the chaos of planning her own wedding, she rallied everyone she could, from industry suppliers to personal friends to anonymous donors for assistance, and put together the most beautiful simcha for the couple.

“Rikki loved helping people. I think it was a distraction from her pain. It gave her so much joy. You would never know she was in pain, she somehow always seemed to laugh and have a beautiful smile,” said Levy.

Ryan knew what he was getting involved with when he met the love of his life.

“Rix had health problems from the day I met her, it was just part of the package, and a struggle for us to overcome together. She had her gall bladder removed the week before our wedding, but this didn’t stop me from lifting her up and twirling her around on the dance floor.

“Because of our situation, we made the most of every good day. When we hit a bad health patch, we pulled together and focused on planning what we would do when she was better.”

The couple met when Rikki was in hospital after a hijacking incident several years ago which caused her Lupus to flare up. Out of boredom, she logged onto Tinder, the dating site, and hooked up with Ryan who was online.

“We went out for dinner as soon as she was discharged, and the rest, as they say, is history,” Ryan said.

He said Rikki overcame many struggles in her lifetime, having come from a broken home with financial difficulties. This and her experience as a behaviour coach enabled her to care deeply for others.

“She had the most beautiful soul, and was always putting others first,” he said.

The coupled planned to travel once Rikki’s health improved.

“She was about to qualify as a teacher of other trainers, and the plan was to spend the winter months travelling overseas training future instructors while I worked remotely.”

They dreamt of having children.

Tozzi said Rikki was her best friend.

“More than that, she was my sister by choice, my family, my confidant, my go-to girl. No one can ever replace the void she has left in my heart and in the world,” she said.

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