ST. CLOUD, Minn. (WCCO) -- St. Cloud State swimmer Marena Kouba is a Carnegie Medal winner. It's an exclusive, national award for someone who risks their life to an extraordinary degree while saving a stranger. Many of the recipients actually die during their rescue efforts.
It was a close call, but Kouba survived to tell her story.
The pool is her happy place, and has been since she was a girl in Sartell.
"Something clicked there and I was like, yeah, this is the sport for me," Kouba said. "Maybe it was just getting to be in the water and splash around, but whatever it was, it stuck."
She swam for St. Cloud State, breaking records, a college athlete building competence and building character under the guidance of head coach Jeff Hegle.
"It's not anything about being a strong swimmer, that's just a tiny part of their life," Hegle said. "When they leave here and you know they're gonna go do great things because they're good people, and that's what we want."
In July 2020, she and her boyfriend Dayton escaped lockdown by relaxing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They walked out to a sandbar on Little Presque Island to soak in some peace, but the landscape soon became terrifying. They spotted a Michigan uncle and his niece and nephew.
"I thought that they were laughing out in the water, but it turns out that they were actually screaming. And Dayton was like, 'Hey maybe you should go check that out,'" Kouba said. "I dove into the water and swam out there."
The rip current was active. The family had been sucked right into the water.
"I got to the uncle first. I was trying to talk to him, and he was just like sobbing, I'm sure overwhelmed, not sure what's gonna happen. He was panicking," Kouba said. "So I grabbed him, I was like, 'You need to grab my hand, we're gonna go over to the children.'"
She soon realized that it was a potentially life-or-death situation.
"When we got over to the two kids, the little boy started asking if we were going to die," Kouba said, tearing up. "Excuse me. And I was like, 'No, no that's not going to happen.'"
It wasn't her swimming training that kicked in, it was something else that she learned at the pool. While the frigid water raged, Kouba -- who had no lifeguard training -- grabbed the uncle's hand and created a chain with the kids and channeled the leadership she'd learned.
"I was like, 'OK, I'm gonna need you guys to listen to me, like I'm gonna be the boss for right now.' And they were very receptive of everything I was saying," she said. "Because that's just what they needed. They needed me to be there and get them back to the shore."
And they did make it back to shore. Eric Benac was shaken and stunned.
"She just appeared like out of nowhere, like I thought that maybe she came right from the sky, as far as I can tell," Benac, of Lansing, said.
The kids were safe, and Benac was taken to the hospital then released. But he'll never be free from the memory.
"I will always remember that. I will never forget her saving me, doing that. She risked her own life to save people she didn't know, strangers. To me, in my ever-dying gratitude, I can never repay that."
Her reward is the rare national honor of the Carnegie Medal for lifesaving.
"It's one of the top awards a person can receive so it's pretty cool, she deserves it," Hegle said.
Because as strong as her skills are, it was the depth of her character that emerged from the water.
"I didn't do it for any recognition, any thank you. I just did it cause that's what you're supposed to do," she said.
Kouba will receive her Carnegie Medal in two months, along with a monetary award. She just finished her senior swimming season and is now in grad school.
The Red Cross recommends that if you see someone drowning, try to throw them a flotation device versus going into the water.
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