La Jolla Cove Swim Club president saves man in distress from ‘The Hole’

La Jolla Cove on a calm summer day, masks the turbulence that can occur in the waters during winter months.
(Light File)

La Jolla Cove Swim Club president Dan Simonelli put his life at risk to save a man from choppy waters at La Jolla Cove during a rescue just before 7 a.m. (before lifeguards reported for the day) Thursday, Jan. 10.

Video taken by a beach-goer and posted to the Lifeguards of San Diego Facebook page shows Simonelli performing the daring rescue. The minute-long video has 5,800 views.

The post reads: “At 6:58, local Cove swimmer (Dan Simonelli) recognized a person in distress in the large surf at The Cove, where all the water energy pushes into an area referred to as ‘The Hole.’ Dan has a reputation with Cove lifeguard staff as being an extremely calm and strong ocean swimmer. He grabbed his fins after 911 was called and entered the water to make contact with the victim as our two Northern night-crew guards responded (and a jet ski) was launched from La Jolla Shores. Entering the water without lifeguards on duty is never recommended. Please swim with caution!”

Dan Simonelli Light File

Simonelli later told La Jolla Light he was at The Cove with a group of students observing the water conditions when he saw the male swimmer (whose name Simonelli did not get) walking down the stairs from Scripps Park toward the ocean shore.

“He didn’t have fins or anything. I thought he was just a local guy and knew what he was doing. He starts to swim and I could tell he wasn’t a strong swimmer,” Simonelli said, noting that large waves were coming in a way the swimmer did not see.

Simonelli and his students watched wave after wave hit the swimmer in the face as he neared The Hole and Simonelli knew he had to act.

“I grabbed my suit and fins, and I just went down,” he said. “When I got to the top of the stairs looking for him, he must have been right in the opening of The Hole. That is the worst place to be with big waves because you can’t get out and the waves keep hitting you.”

An ocean swimmer with years of experience as a lifeguard in Oceanside, Simonelli dove in to help the distressed swimmer.

“He was freaked out and yelling ‘I’m gonna die!’ but I got near enough that I could push him and I yelled ‘we gotta go, we gotta go’!” Simonelli recalled.

Explaining that the “turbulence” of aggressive waves is toward the surface top, Simonelli said he tried to instruct the swimmer to dive as the waves approached.

“You have to get under the top, because under the wave, it can be calm,” he said. “We had been getting under during a set, but when the third one came, the swimmer stayed above. I was totally exposed and got flipped and tumbled three times and I was just expecting to hit the rocks.

“I found my balance and got up, but since I got pushed back, I was 30 feet behind the guy and another wave was coming. I got to within 10 feet behind him and yelled at him to go under. I went under early and spread my arms out wide, hoping he would get pushed into me.”

Now within arm’s reach — and with Simonelli “not going to let him go” — the two got closer to a current that would pull them farther away from where waves were crashing.

“It took me five minutes to get him to where it was safe,” Simonelli said. “There was no one around, but before I went in, I told the kids to call 9-1-1. I finally heard a siren and saw a lifeguard getting ready with the rescue. I told the swimmer the lifeguards were coming. I was gassed, and we were about 100-150 yards out. But I saw they were coming. By this point, the guy was barely keeping his head above water.

“I tried to calm him down, and asked him if he was from the area,” Simonelli. “He said he was from San Diego and he swam at The Cove before, but not when conditions were like that. People come to The Cove once a year and remember it being calm and think they can just jump in and swim out. This guy thought he was going to jump in like he had before.”

When lifeguards arrived, they were able to get the swimmer onto a rescue jet ski. Because the swimmer was able to move all his limbs, Simonelli said he believed the guy would recover.

Crediting his Cove familiarity with helping him during the rescue, Simonelli reflected: “I’ve never been stuck in The Hole ... and I’ve pushed people away from the rocks ... but I’ve never experienced what happened that day. There was a feeling of the unknown. But, I think my training (as a lifeguard) and my disposition helped me focus on what needed to happen.

“The rescue was stressful, hard and taxing, but I know how to contend with the waves: It’s one wave at a time and one breath at a time.”

Get the La Jolla Light weekly in your inbox

News, features and sports about La Jolla, every Thursday.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the La Jolla Light.