Kevin Mee
Credit: Photograph by Robin Twomey

"I realized we were either all going to make it – or we were all going to die."

A lifelong bodysurfer, Kevin Mee has rescued three drowning children over the years on the beaches of Santa Cruz, California. "I'd see them struggling and just pluck them out of the surf," he says. "It's not really a big deal in normal conditions."

On May 2, 2004, however, conditions were anything but normal as Mee, 51, and his wife Anya hunted for sand dollars on Manresa State Beach, just south of Santa Cruz in La Selva. Warning flags were flying as 8-foot waves pounded the shore and powerful rip currents made swimming next to impossible. So when Mee heard screams and spotted two bobbing heads 300 yards from shore, he knew they were in trouble.

While a passerby ran to get a lifeguard, Mee rushed into the 52-degree water and strode toward the pair, since the churning surf made it too difficult to swim. After he had slogged 200 yards, though, the water became too deep to walk farther. "I thought, I could go back now," Mee says. "But I would have gone to hell for abandoning them."

So Mee swam until he reached the two: a 17-year-old girl who was barely staying afloat and an exhausted man in his late twenties who had been trying to save her. Mee quickly dived under the girl and tried to push her up with outstretched arms, but he was unable to stand on the ocean floor. He then tried to scoop his arm under her armpits, but she slipped through his hold. Mee was growing fatigued in the frigid water. "I realized we were either all going to make it – or we were all going to die."

By this time, the girl was unconscious and swallowing water. In one final attempt, Mee dived under her, grabbed her outstretched arms, and pushed her up and out of the water, toward shore. With a hand from the other man and help from the waves, Mee kept pushing her until they reached a sandbar. There, lifeguard Blake Anderson, who had just arrived, strapped the victim to a flotation tube and pulled her to land. The girl started vomiting up water; paramedics, whom Anderson had called, rushed her to the hospital. She was treated for hypothermia and eventually recovered. Anderson says that if Mee hadn't acted, the girl would have been dead.

The girl's name was never released because she's a minor. Mee never learned the name of the man who helped him, either. "Afterward I told him he did a great job," Mee says. "He said, 'You too.' And then he just casually walked down the beach, fading into the sunset. It was kind of surreal."

If you know of a dramatic rescue story like Kevin Mee's, send us details at realheroes@mensjournal.com.