Rick Walker, Humble Hero

Rick Walker, Humble Hero

Rick Walker of Southern Illinois University won the Adolph Kiefer Safety Commendation award at the annual United States Aquatic Sports convention in Dallas, Texas.

The award is presented to the individual or organization that demonstrates outstanding commitment to aquatic safety and has included luminaries from a variety of fields who have demonstrated ongoing or instantaneous acts of heroism.

The previous award winners include Deborah Packard (1990), Priscilla Davis (1991), Dan Mazzei (1992), Askia Bashir (1993), Moon Aqua Club (1994), Steve Gordon (1996), American Red Cross (1997), Kristi Elliott (1998), Stew Leonard Water Safety Foundation (2000), George Young (2001), Adoph Kiefer (2002), Mike Stromberg (2004), Hurricane Katrina Rescue Volunteers (2005), Eric Fucito (2006), Gary Hall, Jr. (2007), Jim Reisser (2008) and Jenny Burgess (2009).

But 2010 was Rick’s year and the accolades are well deserved – and he was typically downplaying his role. “It is with great humility and somewhat awkward feeling that I accept this award. Humility, because I did not think of my actions as heroic. I saw the danger unfolding, it happened, I dealt with it, and continued with the rest of my duties of the race. It is awkward for me because there are so many coaches and officials who have responded to tragedies and more important have prevented them from occurring in the first place. I cannot put into words how honored I am to be recognized among those who want to provide fair play and a safe environment for our swimmers. It’s about the athlete, it always has been.”

Rick has always stressed safety when dealing with the open water world – where he has performed extraordinarily well for the past few decades. “Had it not been for my safety certification, I might as well have been some guy off the street and the athlete would have drown. Truth be known, that’s what saved her life, I was merely the vessel, the real hero’s are United States Swimming and the individuals who developed the safety programs and those who continue to make it better.”

The Daily News of Open Water Swimming had the opportunity to speak with Rick, the long-time USA Swimming open water swimming coach, about the incident that led to this award.

After coaching at 11 world championships and numerous open water races around the world in nearly every kind of weather and water situation, Rick was serving as a referee at the 2009 World Swimming Championships in the women’s 25K race. He knew the athletes, the conditions and the rules, but he also knew that something was up when he saw two-time world championship medalist Kate Brookes-Peterson of Australia uncharacteristically struggling. He just knew something might be up. “I wanted to be in a position to help if anything went wrong.”

It was rough and we had a situation.”

As Rick directed his official referee’s boat towards the back of the lead pack, he recalled, “I saw Kate go through the feeding pontoon and she didn’t look good. She was struggling. Because she was normally a strong swimmer, I knew something was not right. I then informed the head referee that I was going to look after Kate.”

When I was heading over to her [in the official’s boat], she stopped, went vertical and raised her hand. Then, she went under. I was watching her position as we were moving towards her. When she came back up, she was gasping for air. She waved her hand, went limp and went under again.”

When we got to her, her hand was up [towards the surface of the water], but underwater. I was able to reach down and grab her [underwater] and pull her up. I don’t think she was going to come back up. She gasped for air [as she surfaced] and we finally got her into the boat as she passed out. She was about for about 30 seconds.”

By that time, the Italian lifesaving personnel had come over to oversee the situation.

But, it was Rick’s foresight, his understanding of the athletes and his knowledge of the potential dangers of open water swimming that saved Kate. “It’s a good thing we got to her before she took in too much water and drowned. We were thankful to get her out of the water and out of danger.”

A hero for sure. And a humble one at that.

Copyright © 2010 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones