by Dennis Dalman
Marena Kouba, a former Sartell resident, has just been honored with a Carnegie Medal for saving the lives of three struggling swimmers on July 19, 2020.
The incident happened when Kouba and her boyfriend were visiting a Lake Superior beach on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Suddenly, while on that beach, they heard frantic cries for help way out in the water. Three people had been pushed by a current farther into the lake while trying to cross over to a nearby island.
Kouba immediately jumped into the water and swam nearly 200 yards to where a man and two children were in danger of going under. She immediately told them to float on their backs, take deep steady breaths and try to relax. She instructed them to hold hands in a circular formation. Then she “towed” them toward the beach, using just her other arm for swimming, against a current. Exhausted, she shouted to the people on shore to bring help. Those on the shore swam out about 100 feet to help all four to the shore.
Kouba, who was 21 at the time, had saved the lives of Eric Benac, 37, and two children (ages 10 and 11), who were with Benac.
Kouba was one of 18 people to receive Carnegie Medals in March, which are given annually by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. The honor is North America’s highest honor for civilian heroism, bestowed upon those “who enter extreme danger while saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” A 21-member panel selects the recipients. The commission was funded many years ago by famed Scottish-American industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
On the day of the near tragedy on Lake Superior, Kouba and her boyfriend were at the beach almost by accident; they had decided to go there suddenly after changing plans for another destination.
In an interview with the Sartell Newsleader after the dramatic rescue, Kouba said she did not hesitate to swim to help the three desperate people.
“I just knew I couldn’t live with myself if anything would’ve happened to any one of them,” she said.
If it had not been for Kouba’s superb swimming skills, the situation might have ended badly. A 2017 graduate of Sartell High School, she earned All-State honors for the 200-meter medley and the 400-meter freestyle relay. She was the state’s Class A winner of the 100-meter butterfly swim in 2017 and NCAA All-American swimmer in 2020. As a junior student at St. Cloud State University, she was captain of its swim team.