Fans of U.S. diver Garcia know he is more than an athlete, he's a hero
Posted: Monday August 23, 2004 5:05PM; Updated: Monday August 23, 2004 5:05PM
When U.S. diver Caesar Garcia takes to the 10-meter platform for the preliminary diving competition on Friday, some members of a church group near his native Baton Rouge, La., will simply be grateful for his swimming expertise.
And his courage.
A year ago, Garcia, a 22-year-old medical engineering student at Auburn, was on a canoeing trip with his family on the Okatoma River, along the Louisiana-Mississippi border. The waters were typically tame, and Garcia was anticipating a quiet afternoon. Then the rains came, the waters became choppy and two trees fell on opposite sides of the river, leaving a three-foot gap for canoeists and kayakers to proceed downstream, roughly 100 meters in the distance.
Garcia and his family, experienced swimmers and campers, calmly pulled along the shoreline and took a head count. All 13 people (including Caesar's parents, his five siblings and five cousins) were accounted for, but Garcia could see other people weren't as lucky. He looked downstream and saw vessels starting to get backed up, so he left his family and swam over to help.
"I could see as I got closer that people were panicking," he said. "Families started falling out. The boats were getting sucked under. The kids were screaming for their parents. It was scary."
Garcia noticed one boy in his late teens who had Down's syndrome. Garcia isn't sure how the boy lost his kayak or why he went on the river without a life jacket. Garcia grabbed the boy around the waist and swam him over to the branches, so he could pull himself to shore.
Then Garcia swam to the opposite side, found another boy who was on his own and swam him over to some rocks so he could have something solid to stand on. In all, Garcia pulled five kids out of the water that day. Then he waited to make sure there were no other stragglers in harm's way. After the rain subsided, he reunited stranded kids with their parents by ferrying them across the river in his canoe.
The full effect of Garcia's gesture didn't hit him until he went back to the parking lot near the entrance to the river and met the family of one of the boys he had helped. "Dad, look," the boy said, "that's the guy who saved my life." Later that night, his father, Caesar Sr., told him how proud he was of his son's bravery. "But at the time, I thought you were crazy," Caesar Sr. said.
On Friday, the Garcia family will be in the stands, thanks in part to their church group that helped raise money for their trip to Athens through bake sales and picnics. At one fundraising effort, residents ate up to 600 plates of jambalaya in half an hour. Caesar, a surprise winner at the U.S. trials in St. Peters, Mo., says he would be happy just to reach the finals in Athens.
"Winning a medal would be great," he says, "and just making the team was awesome. But no matter what happens, I don't think anything can top that day I was able to help those people. It was the best feeling I ever had in my life."