By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Being at the right place at the right time perfectly describes where Kirk Smith and Brett Makemson were during the recent World Games competitions at Oak Mountain State Park.
Smith and Makemson are Conservation Enforcement Officers (CEOs) with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division assigned to work security during the canoe, skiing and waterboard competitions at the World Games.
Smith and Makemson were in one of the WFF patrol boats in Double Oak Lake for the Women’s K1 Short Distance Finals in the Canoe Marathon when they positioned the vessel to watch the competition.
During the fierce competition, the canoe of Anna Zagorska of Poland collided with other canoes in the turn and capsized, and the WFF officers realized she was struggling.
“Our basic job was security,” Smith said. “I told Brett we’d get a little closer to the start/finish line and watch the race. It was during their turn 3, they came around in a tight bundle. There were probably 10 canoes in one group, and you could hear the paddles hitting and the canoes hitting together, knocking each other around.
“Then we saw one capsize. Brett and I were thinking she was just going to get back in the canoe, but she was reaching and reaching. We saw her hands reach up a couple of different times, and we decided we had better jump on it and make sure she was alright.”
Smith was at the helm and gunned the throttle to quickly reach Zagorska as Makemson moved to the bow of the patrol boat.
“She’s still struggling to get in her canoe,” Smith said of the 17-foot competition vessel. “Brett reaches down and grabs her by the arm. I grab her canoe and her other arm, and we pull her back to the stern of our boat, which has a ladder and swim step. We were able to get her on the swim ladder.
“Of course, there was a language barrier. She kept saying she wasn’t sure if she could finish the race. We were asking her if she was okay and slowly talking to her. She was nodding like she was okay.”
Of course, when competitors reach upper echelons of competitions, like the World Games, the desire to finish the competition is strong.
“Then she started reaching for her canoe, and we asked her if she wanted to get back in,” Smith said. “She was nodding yes, so we helped her get back in her canoe. We had to get a paddle out of our boat. We got her back in her canoe and handed her a paddle. She finished the race, but she finished last because of that ordeal.”