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Torrey Pines Elementary coach rescues swimmer at Sunset Cliffs after helping in La Mesa following protests

Torrey Pines Elementary School PE coach Sergio Cabrera helped a swimmer who was swept into the sea by a wave.
Torrey Pines Elementary School PE coach Sergio Cabrera helped a swimmer who was swept into the sea by a wave at Sunset Cliffs.
(Courtesy)

Torrey Pines Elementary School physical-education coach Sergio Cabrera had one intense day May 31.

It started with driving to La Mesa to help clean up after protests there turned destructive. That was followed by marching with protesters in downtown San Diego, and it ended with rescuing a swimmer at Sunset Cliffs.

The coach of 29 years, known for his high-fives, says helping people has been “in my nature for as long as I can remember.”

La Mesa was the site of protests the night of May 30 and into May 31 calling for police reform and racial justice following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of police officers and the controversial arrest in La Mesa of Amaurie Johnson, who was detained near the Grossmont Transit Center on suspicion of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest, claims Johnson denied. Police said June 5 that they would not seek charges against Johnson.

After the demonstrations led to some businesses being looted, windows being smashed and two banks being burned, Cabrera wanted to help.

“I wanted to go the next day after I saw the destruction because I used to live near La Mesa and I have a friend with a restaurant out there, so I wanted to make sure he and his restaurant was OK,” Cabrera said. “I offered my help to a couple of places that were having a lot of trouble. They seemed to have enough people helping and I didn’t want to be in the way. So I took videos to pass along.”

From there, he went to downtown San Diego to see demonstrations taking place, also in response to Floyd’s death.

“I ended up in the middle of the whole thing. ... It was pretty incredible to see and be a part of. It was wild and crazy, but I was able to stay safe and mingle between the protesters and the police. I know a lot of people are angry at the police, but I’m not. I’m angry with that one and the other three,” he said, referring to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death, and officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, who were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. All have been fired.

Looking to unwind from the day, Cabrera decided to go for a swim at Sunset Cliffs, which he has done for years.

“I hopped in the water and was swimming around the caves and the arch and I noticed there was someone at the top of the cliffs, and he didn’t seem too worried about the size of the waves,” Cabrera said. “I was pretty far away and swam around for a while. I went to turn around and go back when I saw a huge wave swept him off the cliffs. At the bottom, where he was, there were a bunch of boulders, so I was worried about his safety. I swam toward him and by the time I got to him, he had hit his head. I don’t know if it was on one of the boulders or if a wave had pushed him against the cliffs. Either way, he looked pretty dazed and desperate.”

A couple of surfers also saw the swimmer in distress and jumped into action, too. One brought a surfboard to help the swimmer, and after about five minutes — “which felt like 20,” Cabrera said — lifeguards arrived to take the swimmer to shore.

The swimmer was able to walk on his own to get out of the water, so Cabrera met him in the parking lot.

“He gave me a hug and seemed really grateful,” Cabrera said. “His girlfriend was there, too, and she gave me a hug. I thought that was really sweet.”

A San Diego Fire-Rescue Department representative confirmed that a rescue occurred that afternoon at a location known as Pappy’s Point, but had little other information.

The wave sweeping the swimmer to sea was caught on camera — by accident.

Cabrera said he always takes his phone with a waterproof case to record video when he snorkels, surfs or swims. He had his phone with him that day and tried to turn it off as he was heading in.

“I was having technical difficulties turning it off, so I just left it on and I got the wave crashing and sweeping the guy off the cliff,” he said.

The video was posted to the Torrey Pines Elementary School Foundation’s Facebook page.

“Thank you, Coach Sergio. Not only do you help our kids stay fit and healthy, but you’re out saving lives,” the Facebook post reads. ◆