by Dennis Dalman
Very few people get a chance to save the life of another human being, but Marena Kouba, a 2017 Sartell High School graduate, saved not just one life but three all at once.
It happened Sunday, July 19, while she and her boyfriend, Dayton Nash of St. Cloud, were visiting Presque Isle in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the Lake Superior side.
While wading in water toward an island, Kouba and Nash heard the splashing, shouting sounds of swimmers having frolicking fun.
With a quickening dread, they realized the sounds were not fun sounds but desperate cries of swimmers in trouble near the island. An expert award-winning swimmer, Kouba knew exactly what to do without a second thought. She started swimming, fast, toward the swimmers about 100 yards away who were panicking, in danger of drowning. Meantime, Nash dashed back to shore and used his cell phone to call for help, then helped coordinate the rescue effort from the beach.
Kouba arrived at the scene of the crisis, a man and two children thrashing in the water, struggling to stay afloat. She immediately told them to float on their backs, take deep steady breaths and try to relax. Then she instructed them to hold hands in a circular formation. Kouba then positioned herself in the middle, grabbed on to one of them, then paddled and kicked, bringing the drifting swimmers the long way back to the beach – a distance of about 200 yards.
On the way to shore, the floating boy asked Kouba, “Am I going to die?”
She told him no, that they’ll all be OK.
As they floated within sight of the shore, other beach people donned life jackets and swam out to help the group.
It was an exhausting ordeal but thankfully a successful one. Kouba learned the man was the uncle of the two children – a 10-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. Back on the beach, the grateful children quickly recovered from their panic, but the uncle collapsed and started vomiting. By that time, first-responder help had arrived.
If Kouba were not the expert swimmer she is, the crisis might easily have ended in tragedy. As a Sartell Sabre swimmer, Kouba won a state championship award for the 100-meter backstroke. As a St. Cloud State University student and swimmer, soon to be a senior, she has qualified individually for nationals and as a member of a relay team in 2020. Kouba is studying leadership and organization, as well as relational communications, at SCSU, where she met Nash two years ago. He is studying economics.
The couple was enjoying the second anniversary of their meeting with a trip to Marquette, Michigan, when the crisis occurred at Presque Isle, not far from Marquette.
“That afternoon we decided to go to Presque Isle,” she said. “It was a very nice day. The (Lake Superior) water was very choppy so we weren’t sure if we should walk out to the island on a sand bar. Dayton had been there once before, and we decided to go for it. A couple of others from the beach walked out too.”
As they walked out, they could feel the undertow current against their legs getting stronger by the minute. Later, after the emergency, she learned the three swimmers had been caught in the current and taken into deeper water.
“I haven’t fully processed it yet,” she said. “I didn’t have time to think. I had to dive into action and do everything I could to help those people. I’m just really glad it all worked out the way it did. And I’m thankful for the mentors and coaches in my life who taught me the skills to be able to accomplish that rescue.”
It was a lucky fluke that Kouba and Nash were at Presque Isle that afternoon. Strangely enough, the pandemic had something to do with it. Originally, the couple had planned to vacation in Door County, Wisconsin, but because of the virus crisis in that area, they decided to go to Upper Michigan instead.
“I guess,” Kouba said, “you could say we were at the right place at the right time.”