La Jolla native calls Medal of Valor ‘crowning moment’ to lifeguard career



Staff Writer

It’s been an eventful year for lifeguard Mark Feighan.

“Oh definitely,” was the typically low-key response of native La Jollan, who now resides in Pacific Beach with his wife and two children, when asked if he was honored to be singled out for meritorious conduct in the pursuit of duty.

Named lifeguard of the year by his peers this year, Feighan was also one of four San Diego lifeguards presented with a Medal of Valor on Oct. 13 for their role in rescuing six capsized boaters in November. He and colleagues Peter Liebig, Jon Vipond and Daryl McDonald joined just 32 other lifeguards so honored since the award’s inception in 1987.

Feighan, described by friends and family as a “big-time surfer,” talked about the harrowing rescue in stormy seas with 20-foot swells.

“Guys were out in a fishing tournament in Mission Bay and one boat ended up in a horrible situation,” said Feighan, who piloted the rescue craft that day. “My biggest concern was their boat was upside down and strewn all around was their stuff — life jackets, coolers, etc. — popping up all over and any one of those items could have fouled my propeller and it would have been all over for us.”

One of the boat’s occupants was in critical danger as he was wearing a full fisherman’s overalls and boots — but no life vest — which were waterlogged and dragging him under.

“One of my crew took over the piloting of the boat and I was left holding onto this victim who was semiconscious and pretty much dead weight,” said Feighan. “I had to pull him into the boat with more waves coming.”

Though the rescue seemed to last a lifetime, Feighan said it probably took only five to eight minutes. “I was in disbelief,” he said. “It really looked almost fake to me. … such mayhem … All the training kicked in and we did what we had to do.”

Feighan’s mother, Jacky, said she was proud of her son and glad he’s been so successful doing what he always wanted: being a lifeguard.

“He’s been a triathlete,” she said. “He’s won the Catalina Channel Paddleboard competition. He’s been a sportsman all his life.”

The beach was also where Feighan met his wife-to-be, Snezana, a native of Yugoslavia. “I used to sell T-shirts at the Cove,” she said. “I forgot my umbrella one day and I went to the lifeguards and there was Mark.”

Snezana said she never realized just how dangerous being a lifeguard really is until Mark received his medal.

“They’re really putting their life on the line rescuing people,” she noted, adding she believes her husband is deserving. “He’s been a lifeguard in the community for more than 25 years and a waterman and a surf soul all his life,” she noted.

The 49-year-old Feighan, who has 27 years in lifeguarding, said he’s “in denial” about retirement as he gets closer to it.

“I’m probably going to work about five more years and that will be it,” he said adding it’s all been worth it to “be outdoors at the beach able to help people.”

For Feighan, being honored with the Medal of Valor is the clincher for his career.

“This is the crowning moment,” he said. “This is pretty special to me.”