Monday, February 22, 2010


By Tom Segar......How to (not) save a life.

I taught myself how to swim when I turned 30 by reading a book. In reality, I learned that reading a book to learn how to swim is like explaining how to hook up a wireless modem to a relative over the phone – someone will end up in tears, and it won’t be Grandma.

In my first race, I freaked out after 4 minutes and 100 yards in the water. Nowhere in the book did it say what to do when you’re a slow-swimming idiot in a lake with 400 other people, and you suddenly realize this is a very bad idea.

A few summers ago I found myself flung into a situation I was even more terribly unqualified for.

I was at a triathlon which shall remain nameless as it’s a great race and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. I should mention there were plenty of noodle-wielding lifeguards, boats, buoys, and all the stuff that make a great triathlon swim safe.

With safety the number one concern, at the pre-race meeting the officials made it clear what to do if you were in trouble in the water: remove your swim cap and wave it around while you try desperately not to drown. Although I’ve had my terrified moments in the water, luckily I’ve not had to worry about the swim-cap-removal trick yet.

At this local race, the rest of the 35-39 year old men and I were standing on the shore of the beach waiting for the gun. I noticed a man from the wave before me a few hundred yards into the water that was definitely in trouble, attempting a sort of doggy-paddle/side stroke combination back to shore. I immediately recognized he was swimming the ‘Panic Stroke’ which I had perfected in my first year of triathlon. I glanced around but in the anticipation of

our wave’s start, apparently I was the only person who saw this guy. As I watched, suddenly he pulled the trigger: the cap was off.

For the record, by no means am I mocking, teasing or being critical of the swimmer in trouble. If anything, I was probably paying attention because I’ve been that guy. I’m the one apologizing to you as you swim over me. Sorry I was in your way…

I happened to be standing very close to an official and I told him the man in the water was in trouble. The official looked at the man in the water, then looked left, looked right, then looked me straight in the eye.

“You!” he said pointing at my chest, the tip of his finger a half-inch from the word Dork on my tri jersey. “Go get him!”

The next two seconds were the longest of my life. It’s hard to describe the flash of thoughts running through my head. “Me? Seriously, you want me? I’m supposed to save that guy? Are you nuts? I’m hardly qualified to be standing here!”

Speaking of qualifications for an emergency, there are very few emergencies a self-respecting Dork is qualified for. An emergency interpretation of your Chi Square test, sure. Need version 3 of Glassfish for your Web Server? We’re your team. A last-minute ride to the Cyphan Science Fiction Convention in Wheeling IL this June? It’s only a phone call away. But rescuing some guy in the open water at a triathlon? You, sir, are looking at the wrong nerd for the job.

There was no chapter in the Swimming book about lifeguarding, so rote memorization was not an option. In fact everything I knew about lifeguarding was from watching reruns of Baywatch with my housemates in college. Although most of our attention was saved for watching C.J. run down the beach in her swimsuit, I tried to channel my inner Mitch Buchannon and I started my sprint into the water to save a life.

I ran for maybe 15 yards and did my best Curt Wood imitation for another 100, reaching the man. Very luckily for both of us, we were both relatively tall and by the time I reached him I could stand with the water up to my neck, the man on his toes could hold his head above water.

“Are you okay?” I asked. “No!” was his reply.

Oh God, I thought. Now what? I had always hoped I’d be on the receiving end of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from a beautiful lifeguard in a red swimsuit. And NBC would have never allowed David Hasselhoff to perform the Heimlich maneuver on another man when their pelvises were underwater so I wasn’t sure if that was an appropriate in-water lifesaving technique.

Another five feet toward shore and we were both walking in chest-deep water. I asked again if he would be okay, and thankfully this time he answered yes. It was pretty obvious neither of us was going to drown at this point, so hoping to look cool to the beach full of men I desperately wanted to impress, I said “Okay- just walk to shore”, gave him a manly pat on the back, and I swam the 50 or so yard back to the beach.

I walked/ran to my wave who were waiting for me on the beach while the official yelled to the man whose life I sort of ‘assisted’ to be sure he was okay. The official then pointed at me again and asked if I was okay. I said yes, which was followed immediately by the official saying “Good. Okay Men, five, four, three…”.

It was when the official was at “three” when my mind reeled yet again. My heart rate was already through the roof and I was close to hyperventilating. And now, as a guy who still thinks “The bike is hilly but the swim is flat” joke is funny, I had to swim half a mile in two seconds. As desperate as I was to say “But, but, the water- I saved the guy!”, the official continued “two, one” and the horn blast…