MARQUETTE TOWNSHIP, Michigan — When faced with a life-or-death situation Sunday, St. Cloud State senior swimmer Marena Kouba didn’t hesitate.
She dove right in.
Kouba was in Marquette, Michigan, celebrating her 2-year anniversary with her boyfriend Dayton Nash, whom she met her freshman year at St. Cloud State.
The couple was spending the day at the beach at Little Presque Isle, and they were attempting to cross a short portion of Lake Superior to the island.
“You can walk out to this island, but you’re not supposed to with how the currents could be,” Kouba said. “We decided we were going to try it out, but before we even got halfway, we saw these three people had drifted out from the currents and needed a lot of help.”
The two were getting ready to turn around when they realized the screams weren’t laughter, but calls for help.
The couple sprung into action.
“I’m a sinker, not a swimmer,” Nash said. “We were about halfway out there, and I could feel the currents picking me up; the last thing I wanted was for her to have to save me.
“Prior to going out there, we had seen this uncle and the two kids (10-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy),” Nash continued. “We kept an eye on them and slowly saw them get farther and farther out. I kept an eye on them because something didn’t feel right.”
Kouba was already off to save the three swimmers. Nash swam back to shore and made a call to 911, taking notes from dispatch and making sure no other people on the beach put themselves in danger by trying to swim out and help.
“The whole time I was definitely nervous for Marena, but I had a lot of trust in her just knowing how strong of a swimmer she is,” Nash said. “All of these years of swimming have finally paid off not only in the pool, but in real life.”
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Kouba has been a part of multiple conference championship teams at SCSU and qualified for nationals as an individual and relay team member in 2020. The captain will be going into her senior season, and she used her skills to reach the three stranded swimmers.
“As I was swimming out there, I was thinking in my head how to assess the situation appropriately,” Kouba said. “When I got out there, they were all separated probably 10-20 feet apart from each other.”
Kouba got all three close together and had them float on their backs to focus on deep breathes in the stressful situation.
She joined hands with the three others to form a circle, making sure they were all connected.
“I started paddling with one arm and was kicking with both legs,” Kouba said. “I was holding my other arm to the uncle and niece. The little kids were really scared, but they cooperated. I’m just happy we were able to get everyone back safely.”
After swimming over 200 yards out before returning the three to shore, it quickly became evident how poorly it could’ve ended.
“If she hadn’t gone out there, they would’ve never made it,” Nash said. “The boy was asking her as she was swimming back if he was going to die. She had to say … they’re going to be fine.”
After they’d been on shore for a while, a Coast Guards boat arrived. The timing made Kouba think the three swimmers wouldn’t have been able to make it if the couple hadn’t been in the right place at the right time.
The spot of the rescue at Little Presque Isle is notorious for dangerous waters, with “no swimming” signs and memorials to past swimmers on the beach.
Luckily for the couple, they expected to return Wednesday to St. Cloud with a story that had a happy ending they won’t soon forget.
“I’m very thankful that it was her that was there; if it was anyone else in a different position going out there, it might have been a totally different story,” Nash said. “I just feel like we’re lucky that it was her, and that she knew she’d be able to do it. She was able to get them all back safely.”
Zach Dwyer is a sports reporter and photographer for the St. Cloud Times. Reach him at 320-406-5660 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sctimeszach.