By Linda Cicoira
When five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin said, “Swimming is the only sport that can save your life,” she was probably referring to an incident like the one two Eastern Shore women encountered at Assateague Beach earlier this summer.
Caroline Turner, 21, of Accomac, and Meridith Kellam, 23, of Onancock, had been surfing at the popular beach for a few hours on the evening of June 28, and had just sat down to take a break when a panicked good samaritan ran up to them and asked to use one of their surf boards for a rescue.
Meridith took her board and we both ran down the beach,” said Turner, who is a senior at JMU. “It wasn’t too crowded. People had started to pack up and leave.”
They saw a man in the water and about a dozen people who had gathered on the nearby beach and were apparently unable to help him.
Turner went to the aid of another man she described as older who was also out in the water and had attempted to rescue the first man. She walked him back to the beach before following Kellam.
Kellam, who is in graduate school at the Citadel, paddled into the boisterous current. “The man was out very far and he couldn’t touch” bottom, Kellam said. “He was beginning to bob a bit up and down in the water and was out of breath (from) calling for help.”
“The ocean does what it wants,” she explained. “You can feel in complete control at one moment and then be held under or swept out the next.”
Kellam has “swum my whole life on the Onley Swim Team and did USA Swimming in the fall during my high school years. I began surfing in middle school. My swimming experience has helped immensely in keeping calm in the ocean and not panicking when things feel as though they are getting rough. Knowing your limits while in the ocean is key. If you feel it is too rough when you enter,” she advised, “don’t think it is okay to keep going.”
“We were able to get the man on the surf board,” Turner said. “There was a point when we couldn’t touch bottom but not for long. Otherwise, it was shoulder/neck height. It wasn’t too hard to get him on the board, but it was difficult getting him in … We both got sick from exhaustion” afterwards. “My guess was … he didn’t realize how strong the current was until he was in it.”
Turner has been swimming competitively since she was three years old. She started at the Onley pool where she swam every summer. Turner was also a lifeguard there and at the YMCA since she was 17, and was on the Accomack County Public Schools swim team.
“I think swimming definitely was a big factor” in the incident,” Turner said. “I’m assuming if he could swim, he would have. I think swimming is extremely important even if you don’t pursue swimming as a sport. For situations like these you don’t know what could happen. Having the skill could save your life. It was also really lucky we happened to have our surf boards with us.”