In the fall of 2010, Southern Illinois University swim coach Rick Walker was honored with the Adolph Kiefer Safety Commendation award at the annual United States Aquatic Sports convention for heroically saving the life of an Australian swimmer at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, Italy.
Walker was serving as an open water swimming official at the World Championships when he saved the life of Australian marathon swimmer Kate Brookes-Peterson while serving as a FINA referee in the women’s 25 km race.
But the long-time USA Swimming national open water swimming coach and veteran administrator typically downplayed his role.
“It is with great humility and somewhat awkward feeling that I talk about this. Humility, because I did not think of my actions as heroic. I saw the danger unfolding, it happened, I dealt with it, and continued with the rest of my duties of the race. It is awkward for me because there are so many coaches and officials who have responded to tragedies and more important have prevented them from occurring in the first place. It’s about the athlete, it always has been.”
Walker has always stressed safety when dealing with the open water world over the past few decades. “Had it not been for my safety certification, I might as well have been some guy off the street and the athlete would have drown. Truth be known, that’s what saved her life, I was merely the vessel, the real hero’s are the individuals who developed the safety programs and those who continue to make the sport better.”
He knew the athletes, the conditions and the rules, but he also knew that something was up when he saw two-time FINA world championship medalist Brookes-Peterson uncharacteristically struggle in the open water. He was instinctive and followed up on a hunch that something might be up with the experienced veteran. “I wanted to be in a position to help if anything went wrong. The conditions were rough and we had a situation.”
He directed his official referee’s boat towards the back of the lead pack where Brooks-Peterson was lagging behind. He recalled, “I saw Kate go through the feeding pontoon and she didn’t look good. She was struggling. Because she was normally a strong swimmer, I knew something was not right. I then informed the head referee that I was going to look after Kate.
When I was heading over to her [in the official’s boat], she stopped, went vertical and raised her hand. Then, she went under. I was watching her position as we were moving towards her. When she came back up, she was gasping for air. She waved her hand, went limp and went under again.
When we got to her, her hand was up [towards the surface of the water], but underwater. I was able to reach down and grab her [underwater] and pull her up. I don’t think she was going to come back up. She gasped for air [as she surfaced] and we finally got her into the boat as she passed out. It took about 30 seconds.”
His foresight, his understanding of the athletes and his knowledge of the potential dangers of open water swimming that saved the young Aussie. “It’s a good thing we got to her before she took in too much water and drowned. We were thankful to get her out of the water and out of danger.”
Another open water swimming hero follows his instincts and saves a life.
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