Christina Theiss’ friend was snapping a photo of Theiss and her 4-year-old son Brandon last Mother’s Day on the jetty at Ocean Reef Park. The friend looked up from the camera and saw two boys struggling against the afternoon rip tide.
“I think those boys are in trouble,” the friend said. “I think they’re drowning.”
Seconds later, the 36-year-old Hobe Sound resident was jumping off the rocks to save them.
On Tuesday, the Palm Beach & Martin County Red Cross honored Theiss, a former Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor, with its highest lifesaving award.
Theiss said the boys, about 14 years old, were within a body’s length of the jetty, in shoulder-deep water, but couldn’t get back in.
“I know anytime there are rock formations like a jetty, there’s a strong rip current, and they went in a short amount of time from being chest-deep to shoulder-deep, and then one was hugging the other one. That’s when I jumped in. That’s the first indication of a double-victim rescue,” she said.
When she got to them, their heads were dipping below the water. They didn’t seem to know how to swim.
The current kept her from pulling them closer in, so she swam them parallel to the shore, holding her breath and swimming under water while holding them above the surface.
Finally she got to a point where she could touch bottom and was chest-deep. But without a life vest or flotation device, “I was so physically exhausted there was nothing I could do other than wait” for lifeguards to be summonsed from farther up the beach to help them all ashore, she said.
The boys were in shock, she said. “There was not one word spoken to me. I just kept telling them, ‘You’re OK, you’re going to be fine.’ That’s what happens when you get to that point. You go into shock. You get to the point where you can’t yell for help.”
Once ashore, she realized she’d dislocated her shoulder — both shoulders had been operated on previously — and had to call 911 for an ambulance.
The boys went off with the lifeguards. Theiss never did get their names. She wanted to offer them swimming lessons.
Theiss started lifeguarding when she was 15 years old, swam in Division 1 for Duquesne University and worked as an ocean lifeguard when she was 22. Now she runs Swim With Gills, an American Red Cross learn-to-swim program in Palm Beach County, and she trains swimming instructors and lifeguards.
That doesn’t mean jumping into the water to save the boys was her first option. She had no safety equipment or backup team. And it has been 14 years since she’s done the rigorous athletic training required for ocean rescues. “I’m a mom with two kids and I can barely make it in my spinning class.”
But it was an unguarded beach, she said.
“I looked around and nobody was there to help them. When I went in, I didn’t know if I’d be able to save them.”
But she did. And she accepted the Red Cross award in West Palm Beach on Tuesday with her parents and her two boys, Brandon, 4, and Tristin, 2, looking on. Theiss told the gathering of Red Cross officials that she felt honored to have been in a position to save the boys.
“Whether you’re on duty or off duty, you’re a lifeguard for life,” she said.
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