Fast action credited with saving life

MARQUETTE — The signs of drowning may not be what you think.

Swimmers in distress are often unable to wave their arms or call for help, making drowning a much more silent and subtle emergency than many realize.

But on Monday, the trained eye and fast actions of a longtime certified lifeguard and swim instructor, Shawn Robinson-Sobczak, helped prevent a potential tragedy.

Robinson-Sobczak had arrived at Presque Isle’s Black Rocks for an end-of-summer swim with her daughter Monday afternoon when she saw a college student jump off of the rocky ledge into Lake Superior — and not resurface very quickly.

“He didn’t come up as fast as people usually do, so my heart dropped right then,” she said.

Due to Robinson-Sobczak’s training as a lifeguard, she was ready to act, keeping a close eye on the spot where the student had jumped.

Shortly after he jumped and went beneath the water, “he came up and panicked and grabbed on to his friend,” who had jumped in shortly before him, Robinson-Sobczak said.

“He was panicky, and they were both going under and not coming back up. And that’s when I knew I had to,” she said.

Robinson-Sobczak took quick action, jumping into the water to aid the two swimmers and help calm them. It’s important to relax and resist the urge to panic in a situation where you feel you may be drowning, she said, noting that relaxing and filling your lungs with air can help you float.

“He totally listened to me telling him to relax, so that made it easier,” she said.

The rest, she said, is a bit of a blur, but everyone made it to shore safely.

While this incident was resolved, Robinson-Sobczak wants the community to understand that many basic instincts about what drowning looks like — and what to do about it — are incorrect.

“People that were watching told me afterwards they thought he was just kidding around because he wasn’t yelling for help, but when you’re drowning, you can’t yell for help, you’re just too busy trying to get air in your lungs,” she said.

She also emphasized that swimming to help a drowning person when unprepared to do so can make a situation doubly dangerous.

“Even if you think you’re a halfway decent swimmer, don’t try to help them because then that’s a potential double drowning,” she said, noting that throwing something to the person and calling for help is the better option.

Robinson-Sobczak, a trained and certified lifeguard of over 30 years and a lifeguard instructor for 22 years, said she even made a few mistakes in handling the incident — not bringing a piece of rescue equipment with her when she jumped into the water was one of them.

Bringing something that floats is essential, Robinson-Sobczak said, as when a person is drowning, their basic instinct is to grab the nearest floating thing, which could be the rescuer if they don’t bring something with them.

“You cannot be so close to somebody without a piece of rescue equipment between you and them, because they’ll grab you and pull you under,” she said.

While rescue devices are ideal for such a situation, many other objects can be used, she said. Rope or a tree branch can be thrown to a person to grab on to. Coolers, footballs and just about anything that floats can be used in an emergency, she said.

Robinson-Sobczak said another mistake she made was not telling a specific person to call 911 when she yelled out “get help” as she jumped in the water.

“I teach in my class that you’re supposed to yell ‘Hey you, in the purple shirt, call 911,’ so then that makes them feel obligated. They have to do it, “ she said.

Robinson-Sobczak also emphasized the importance of basic swimming skills and avoiding peer pressure. She later found out that the swimmer in distress, who was from the Lower Peninsula, didn’t know how to swim and had “never touched Lake Superior before, so he had no idea about the cold.”

She said she encouraged him to take a swimming course and encourages people of all ages to learn to swim by taking a class, noting that some are offered for adults and children at Northern Michigan University’s PEIF and the YMCA of Marquette County.

Overall, Robinson-Sobczak said that she is just “an average person,” a certified lifeguard who works at the local Meijer and the YMCA, who didn’t do what she did for a “pat on the back.” She does, however, hope for further community education and outreach efforts about water safety on Lake Superior, as it just might save a life.