Student Swimmers Double as Life-Saving Rescuers

Two Biola athletes respond to emergency situations while lifeguarding at Newport Beach

Oct. 4, 2011 By Jessica Airey

Water is no unfamiliar territory for first-year Newport Beach lifeguards Bretton Smith and Nathan Roe. Both are accustomed to braving the waves and overcoming stiff competition as members of the Biola University swim team. Last year, Smith and Roe challenged school records and qualified to compete at a national level. This summer, they used their talent to make it through the highly-selective tryout process to serve the west coast community as lifeguards. Both student-athletes performed numerous rescues over the three months they spent patrolling the beach.

Early this September, unusual storms off the coast of New Zealand drove currents across the Pacific to pummel the beaches of Southern California with powerful waves. Smith was able to save the life of a woman who found herself overpowered by the 20 foot waves’ strength at a particularly hazardous surf spot known as the Wedge.

World-famous for its dangerous surf, the Wedge generates huge swells by combining crests that ricochet off a rock jetty creating a highly volatile, unpredictable succession of waves. Forceful currents attract thousands of observers and local news crews to witness the few veteran surfers who dare to tempt the dangerous swells on this stretch of Newport Beach.

Smith’s heroic opportunity came unexpectedly. As a rookie lifeguard, he had not even been scheduled to work that day and had never been assigned to the Wedge.  

“They typically reserve the Wedge for more experienced guards. So just the fact that I was there was mind-blowing,” Smith said.  

Smith’s primary responsibilities consist of identifying surfers experienced enough to handle the complex waves and providing rescue response for those allowed to enter the water. During his shift, one woman who had been unable to demonstrate an accurate familiarity with the currents slipped past Smith and bolted into the ocean.

She quickly found it difficult to swim normally amidst the unique breakers. Because of the shallow depth of the Wedge, diving under a wave, a technique that works successfully at most other beaches, becomes impossible. Backwash churns the top wave all the way to the bottom floor and threatens to drag swimmers out to sea after colliding with the incoming wave.

Smith and his partner had to pin her to the sand to keep the woman from getting sucked back out and thrashed repeatedly. Fatigue kept her from swimming, standing or walking on her own so Smith had to hoist her up and carry her to the safety of the shore where she was able to recover.

Roe, on Labor Day weekend, offered an elderly beachgoer first response emergency medical rescue. Only two minutes into his shift, Roe was alerted to an older woman who had passed out on the shore, hunched against her daughter’s leg. After calling in the situation, Roe quickly found the unconscious woman and checked for breathing or a pulse.

When he found no signs of either, Roe immediately began to administer the first rounds of CPR.

“At first, it was like a panic — this person is basically dead right now — and then, once I got into it, it was kind of a blur.”

As he applied chest compressions and life-saving breaths, he felt many of her frail ribs cracking and breaking beneath his hands. After a few moments, the woman began to gasp for air and mustered a pulse, but still remained completely unconscious. Backup came with an AED but the shock device could not be used because her pulse was too faint. Roe tirelessly continued with four rounds of 30 compressions until paramedics arrived and whisked her away to a local hospital. The woman, one of Roe’s 40 other rescues this summer, was able to survive the emergency incident.

For the past few years, death has claimed the lives of hapless beachgoers every summer. However, thanks to dedicated lifeguards like Roe and Smith, no one drowned at Newport Beach this year.

Biola's swimming and diving season kicked off on Oct. 7. Get the 2011-2012 season schedule.


Written by Jessica Airey, Media Relations Intern. For more information, please contact Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Coordinator, at jenna.l.bartlo@biola.eduor via phone at 562.777.4061.


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