MORRO BAY, Calif. – Twelve-year-old Trent Popovich, a USA Swimming Junior Olympian, will be recognized today with the United States Lifesaving Association’s Heroic Act Award for his successful rescue of two young girls from the California surf on February 12, 2006. Popovich was surfing near the Cayucos Pier when he heard the cries of the girls, ages eight and 10, who were caught in the riptide. An accomplished competitive swimmer, he rescued both girls by lifting them on to his surfboard and swimming them to the shore.
Herb White, a park ranger at Montana de Oro State Park and the local president of the California State Lifeguard Association nominated Popovich for the national award.
“Trent had the ability to make this rescue because of his swimming and surfing experience,” White told The Bay News. “However, we must also recognize his parents for their role. Trent’s mother made sure her children learned to swim and are part of the local PUMA swim club. Trent’s father, Terry, taught his children about the ocean and how to safely surf. Thanks to the dedication and sacrifice of the Popovich family, two young girls were rescued from a dangerous situation which may have taken them from us forever.”
Popovich began swimming at age three under the direction of his mother, Ella, who never learned to swim. Ella Popovich taught her children to swim for the reason that it could save lives. She said Trent repeated words back to her after the rescue.
“He said to me, ‘Mom, you told me that one day swimming would save my life or the life of someone else, but I didn’t think I’d be 12 [when it did].”
At age nine, Popovich was swimming competitively for the PUMA Aquatic Team in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where he trains alongside his seven-year-old sister Tyra. His training and strong swimming skills were key in providing him the strength and endurance to complete this heroic act, Ella Popovich said. The conditions on Feb. 12 produced at least one other near-drowning, causing the local park rangers to nickname it “Black Sunday.” Another child suffered brain damage as a result of a near-drowning just a half-mile away after difficult ocean conditions and waves up to eight feet high made the waters dangerous for inexperienced swimmers.
Ella Popovich said more children, especially those who live in coastal communities, need to learn to swim in order to reduce the need for such rescues.
“To me, learning to swim is like going to school. Children simply must do it,” she said.
The Heroic Act Award is presented by USLA to a non-lifeguard who has risked his life to an extraordinary degree in a rescue or attempted rescue of another person. Popovich will become the 49th person to receive the award since its establishment in 1987. He will be honored at the Morro Vets Hall today at 12 p.m. PST.