What was meant to be the most relaxing day of my one month youth group trip in Israel turned into the most heart-wrenching and horrifying day for me, the people who were with me, my friends, my family and everyone else that cares about me.
It was the ninth day of my trip, June 29, and everyone in the group, consisting of almost 30 of my closest friends, were staying with host families in the city of Gedera, Israel. We were all allowed to pick a roommate from within the group, and then we were randomly paired with a family that had someone of the same gender and age as us that lived in Gedera. These families came from a youth group movement that was connected to the one we were all a part of in San Diego.
I picked to stay with my friend Alan, and we were paired with a very sweet and funny guy named Gilad. Gilad's good friend Yair was hosting two of my close friends, Sherman (his last name that he goes by) and Jose.
On the second day of our stay with these families, and our last, we were given a free day. This would be the only day of our one month stay in Israel that we would not see our counselors, and the only day we would be given to do practically anything we wanted. This was the day everyone was looking forward to. We were free to roam around, and everyone was excited for what was meant to be the most "chill" day of the month.
Gilad and Yair had decided to take the four of us out to the beach, which we were all excited about. We woke up late, one of the only times we were allowed to all month, and headed over to the local beach.
It was a very hot day, so we quickly put on our sunblock and got into the Mediterranean Sea. Yair, before entering, had pointed out that their was a black flag out, which, I would later learn, meant that you should only go in if you are a very experienced swimmer. To the locals a black flag meant that you simply don't go in deeper than your waist, due to the strong current, big and rapid fire waves and jellyfish. This information, however, was all made news to the San Diegans too late. So sure we realized that there were no lifeguards, that nobody was in deeper than their waist and that their was a black flag out, but none of that really registered.
I normally don't go in the ocean here in my hometown of San Diego. I just don't like it much. The water is freezing, and the weather isn't hot enough to make me want to go in. Not to mention, when I was young I was scared of sharks swimming up next to me so I never got used to going into the ocean. This was a whole different ball game though. Israel is scorching hot, it's very dry and the water temperature is perfect for the weather.
It started off as the six of us: Jose, Sherman, Gilad, Yair, Alan and I. As we went farther and farther out Jose, Gilad and Alan decided to call it quits and went back in. As we went farther and farther, none of us could reach anymore; not even me at 6''1'. We began to tread water, which was not a big deal for Sherman, who is on the swim and water polo team at our high school, but it was enough to tire Yair and I out after a while.
We decided to head in after about 20 minutes of being in the sea, and my life almost decided to call it quits too.
We were so deep that the waves wouldn't form in front of us, but rather behind us. I had forgotten how hard it was to get passed the waves in the first place, and didn't even consider how hard it would be to get past them again. As we were swimming back in I began to get tired, but had nothing to do with my physical figure, or my swimming skills, because all of that was fine.
On the way in, a wave hit me by surprise. That was one reason for the black flags. Waves would come in one after another after another very quickly, and they were all big. This wave hit me as I was taking a breath, so rather than getting air into my lungs I got sea water. I swallowed a lot of water, and the panic immediately sank in. We were very far from shore, the waves were hitting me over and over, the tide was so strong it was hard to advance to the shore and mentally, I didn't think I could do it.
I called out to Sherman to help me, but he didn't believe me. Another wave hit, I got more water in my system, and I struggled to even call his name out again, but something seemed to click for him and he rushed over. He asked me what was going on, and I told him that I could barely breathe, and he noticed how I was panicking. He immediately told me to hold on to him while he swam, and Yair came over to help as soon as he saw that. It was a nearly impossible feat to get me back to shore because the waves were so big and so repetitive that they would separate the three of us often. Yair too was tired and couldn't help me or he would drown as well, so he simply stayed by and helped anyway he could (I would at times grab his foot).
As we get separated again and again Sherman told me I needed to dive under the wave or I would keep swallowing water. What he didn't understand, and I couldn't convey to him, was that I didn't have the lung capacity to go under the wave. I had about two seconds of lung capacity tops. I would dive under and come up halfway through the wave and take in even more water whenever I would try.
I began to throw up, I saw how far away we were, how we weren't making any progress and how physically and mentally worn out I was, and I uttered to Sherman four words that nobody ever wants to say:
"I'm going to die."
Sherman, being a long-time close friend of mine, immediately said, "No you're not. No you're not," as if to convince himself of this as well. He explains that I need to try my best to swim because he can't do all the work, and that the waves keep separating us. He also does the smartest thing he could've done, and tells me that we are almost at shore, when that could not have been any farther from the truth.
We were at least 100 yards away, I was throwing up, I thought I was going to die and I began to think of how awful it is going to be for the people close to me when they find out that I passed away. I think of my friends, family, teachers and even the people that gave me an internship at the Broadcast Company of the Americas, which I was going to start when I got back to San Diego, and how awful it is going to be for them to find out I have passed. These and some other thoughts went through my head in a matter of five seconds because I didn't have more time to think. I remember looking at the beach, the scenery, the people and knowing that this was the last thing I would ever see in my entire life. I felt as though I was dying before my time because I had so much left to accomplish. I was just given this amazing opportunity as an intern, I was blogging for The Huffington Post, I was the sports editor for an award-winning high school paper and I was well on my way to accomplishing my hopes and dreams in the sports media industry. But this was it. The beach would be the last thing I saw, Sherman and Yair would be the last people I see, and my life was going to end a little more than three weeks after I had turned 16.
Then something miraculous happened. I wish I could tell you how, why or what happened, but I don't remember much. I recall Sherman cheering me on, me grabbing him while he swam twice as hard to help me live, him continuing to lie that I was getting closer and finally making it to shore.
I threw up twice once we got to shore, and Jose saw us. He came sprinting from where our towels laid, asked Yair what I needed, and ran to get me water. Sherman and Yair helped me over to where our beach towel was and sat me down. My head was throbbing harder than it had ever throbbed, and I was on the verge of throwing up again. All I wanted to do was sleep.
Nobody let me sleep for fear that I had a concussion from the waves hitting me around like a doll, and they made me drink water despite me not wanting to. An off-duty lifeguard came over, asked what had happened, and threw freezing cold water on my back which seemed to have opened my lungs up. Then he instructed my friends what to do. My friends went to grab me a popsicle, an ice tea and comforted me until I felt better.
I hadn't seen my life flash before my eyes, I didn't see the light, I didn't speak to God and I'm not saying that doesn't happen with other near death experiences, but what did happen to me was far more important than any of those other things.
I knew I was going to die. And I didn't.
There were no lifeguards on duty that day, despite the very populated beach, possibly because it was a black flag day and nobody is supposed to go in anyway, or because it was Shabat (a lot of people don't work on Shabat), or, as one person told me, "This isn't the United States. We don't have lifeguards everywhere."
The off-duty lifeguard who had seen me throwing up told my friends, "Your friend is very lucky. A lot of people have died just like that."
The lifeguard couldn't have been more right. I was very lucky.
I had many friends who were on the verge of tears when they heard the story, I had two friends that laughed because they didn't understand the severity of the situation and I had countless family members crying. I had texts, I had calls and overwhelming support/worry for my well-being. And that was great, but I told them that they shouldn't be talking to me, but rather they should be talking to Sherman.
Despite the fact it was a group effort, Sherman almost single-handedly saved my life. If it would not have been for him, I would not be writing this article right now. Everyone that cares about me or was worried for me needs to thank him.
Alan Sherman saved my life, and I will be eternally grateful.