Lt. Jeremy Austin, 36, didn’t expect to win an award when he took his family to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on March 23, 2010. But a decision by the Mule Creek State Prison corrections officer to jump into the frigid ocean to rescue a drowning swimmer eventually led to him receiving a medal of valor from the governor.
“At first I went through all the reasons I wasn’t going to get involved,” Austin said as he recounted the events at his Lodi home Friday afternoon. “I had my kids there and I thought he was too far out, but only one other person was trying to do anything and he never made it to the breaks. I knew (the stranded swimmer) had no other hope.”
Within seconds, the Lockeford native, who now lives in Lodi, had walked his children and a nephew up the beach to a safer location, ditched his shirt and shoes, and sprinted into the water. While the former Marine had swum in the ocean during his training and service, fighting breaking waves and heavy currents isn’t something he’s a fan of.
“I don’t go to the ocean to swim in it anymore,” he said. “I go to splash around.”
The man, stranded about 200 yards offshore, was spotted by others on the beach, Austin said. Why he was out there is unclear to Austin, but he said he believes the man was intoxicated.
Because he was standing at sea level, Austin couldn’t even see the subject, but others standing at a higher elevation were screaming about the situation.
Before going into the ocean, Austin called his wife, who was with their daughter in the amusement park. He told her to stay put and that the kids he was with were on the beach. He then dropped the phone and entered the Pacific Ocean.
“I watched him through the binoculars at the Boardwalk,” said Austin’s 14-year-old daughter, Macey. “I was freaking out.”
Austin knew he had the physical strength to reach the swimmer, but wanted to be sure he wasn’t endangering himself more than necessary, he said. His training with the Marines had taught him to grab a subject in the water around the shoulders, but Austin was concerned the man would simply go limp and weigh them both down.
“As I was swimming out there, I was trying to conserve my energy so I’d still have something left when I got to him,” he said.
He reached the swimmer just in time.
“It got to the point where he was staying underwater longer than he was above it as I was getting to him,” he said. “He went under one last time and I grabbed onto him.”
As Austin had worried, the man viewed his presence as the end of the ordeal, he said.
“He tried to put all his weight on me and I had to tell him, ‘We still have work to do,’” Austin said.
Dragging the man by his right arm, Austin told the swimmer to kick his legs as they worked their way back to shore.
As they got about 50 yards from the sand, another man raced to Austin and the swimmer and helped them to shore.
“We were trying to dig our legs in, but the current kept pulling us back,” he said. “Finally we got to shore, I dropped him with the lifeguards and got out of there.”
A crowd congratulating Austin and the other Good Samaritan started to form, but the corrections officer wanted none of it.
“I called my wife and told her where to meet us so we could get out of there,” he said.
Hours after the event and the adrenaline wore off, physical exhaustion and emotions came into play, Austin said.
He told only a select group of friends, family and coworkers about the incident, but word quickly spread.
“I came into the office one day and someone had drawn a cartoon of me in a Speedo wearing a cape,” he said. “They had some fun with it.”
An officer at the prison informed Mule Creek’s staff about Austin’s deed and recommended him for the California Department of Correction’s 2011 Medal of Valor Award, said Michelle Hamilton, public information officer for the prison.
An awards committee reviewed the story and offered Austin an award, Hamilton said.
He was given the Corrections Star Silver medal for bravery in unusual or extraordinary circumstances by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 1. The Silver Star is the department’s third-highest award for acts of bravery.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.