Graduating student recently awarded Medal of Valor

Riley Rhodes

Riley Rhodes, inset and at right, faced high surf on two rescues on Jan. 21, 2023. She and a fellow lifeguard received medals of valor for a nighttime rescue that day.

May 14, 2024

By Mark Muckenfuss

It was dusk when Riley Rhodes reached Poplar Beach, near Half Moon Bay. January storms that pounded the region in 2023 had riled up the surf and the sea was menacing. But beyond the eight-foot breakers, a young man was stranded. Rhodes and her fellow lifeguard, Max Hunter, were faced with a difficult rescue. 

Rhodes, who is graduating May 18 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, technology and policy, was recently honored, along with Hunter, with a Medal of Valor for saving the swimmer’s life.

Lifeguarding for California State Parks, said Rhodes, can often be an uneventful job. Sometimes weeks pass without an emergency call. But on this day, she had already made one rescue, pulling a fisherman from the waves with the help of some nearby surfers after he’d been swept from the shore. She didn’t know she wasn’t done for the day.

“We were about two miles away at our headquarters at Kelly State Beach when we got a 911 call that there was a person in the water,” Rhodes said. “His mom and dad made the call.”

The young man had swum out into the huge waves. Once beyond them, he didn’t know how to get back to shore. At 5:30, with the light fading and his stamina likely doing the same, the situation was becoming dire. Using binoculars, rescue workers spotted the swimmer and, after donning wetsuits and fins, and discussing their strategy, Rhodes and Hunter set off into the waves.

“Once we got in the water, we lost sight of him completely,” Rhodes said.

Clearing the breakers, the two guards even lost sight of one another briefly. They coudn’t see the swimmer but they could hear him calling out and finally located him. 

“He was kind of freaking out. He had a wetsuit on, which was very helpful,” said Rhodes, given the frigid water temperature. “If he hadn’t had a wetsuit, I think it would have been a different story.”

The three looked to the shore, hoping to see the lights of emergency vehicles as a guide. There were none visible. A Harbor Patrol boat, which had responded to the call, was nearby and they began swimming toward it, thinking it was the safest way to escape the ocean. But, as they moved toward it, the boat motored away.

“We realized they couldn’t see us,” Rhodes said, “so we had to swim in.”

It took time to pick what seemed the best exit point and even longer to navigate the dangerous surf while holding onto the swimmer. Rhodes had wrapped a floatation buoy around him and was holding on as they were carried by the breakers.

“At this point, we’re all pretty tired,” she said. “I was literally bear-hugging him when we went under waves so I wouldn’t lose him.”

When they finally hit the sand, no support vehicles were in sight. The guards eventually spotted the flashlights of a firefighting crew in the distance and discovered they were nearly a mile downshore from where they had entered. But they were safe, and so was the swimmer.

Unable to see the swimmer or the guards from shore, those waiting had feared the worst. Rhodes said it led to an emotional moment when they reunited.

Earlier this year, the California Surf Lifesaving Association awarded both Rhodes and Hunter Medals of Valor for their rescue, based on a supervisor's nomination.

“I was definitely surprised about it,” Rhodes said of the award. “You shoudln’t expect recognition, but to get it is really cool.”

She said the medal sits on her desk. Soon, she’ll have another award, her bachelor’s degree. 

Rhodes said she hopes to continue working for State Parks and to put her environmental studies degree to work. The Half Moon Bay native wants to remain in the area, which is one of the reasons she chose CSUMB.

“I like being by the ocean and I thought this was a really good place to go for environmental science,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of great classes and I love the small-class environment.”

She loves lifeguarding as well, even if it can be harrowing at times.

“I have a lot of stories,” she says with a smile, “but this one is definitely at the top of the list.”