Kelly O’Neil ’22 honored for saving drowning man’s life

Kelly O'Neil '22, who also works as a lifeguard at Elon, is credited with saving a drowning man's life at Chapoquoit Beach in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on July 7.

For four summers, Kelly O'Neil '22 prepared for a moment like this. 

"They always train us that you never know what to expect," she said. "Every day, there’s a chance you could give CPR, there’s a chance someone could drown, there’s a chance that anything could happen."

Fifteen minutes before the end of her July 7 shift at Chapoquoit Beach in Falmouth, Massachusetts, O'Neil came face to face with one of those "anything" moments. She noticed a swimmer struggling off the coast during high tide. O'Neil, who also teaches swimming lessons at the beach and has been swimming for most of her life, immediately knew something was wrong.

"I noticed his backstroke started deteriorating," O'Neil said. "His arms – instead of going all the way back in full circle motions – his arms kind of got wider and off to the side, and I’d already noticed that he was a good swimmer, so that didn’t look right."

O'Neil paddled a rescue board toward the swimmer, James Condon, to see if he needed help getting back to shore, and as O'Neil approached, the man started to drown. Soon he stopped moving and sank into the water until O'Neil could only see his hand. That's when the Needham, Massachusetts, native jumped into action, blowing her whistle three times – the universal sign for a water emergency. 

Once she made it to the man, O'Neil found him drowning facedown, turning blue and without a pulse. 

With the head lifeguard on break and a rookie lifeguard with fewer than two weeks of experience as the only other guard on the shore, O'Neil had a terrifying revelation. 

"I realized I was really on my own," she said. 

What happened next, O'Neil said, was all thanks to adrenaline. She handed her rescue board to a nearby swimmer, rolled Condon over and swam him back to shore, pulling muscles in her back and shoulder in the process. Onlookers then helped give Condon care as Falmouth first responders raced to the scene. 

Emergency responders were able to give Condon oxygen, and he regained his breathing as they put him in the back of an ambulance. It was at that moment O'Neil's adrenaline subsided, and she collapsed to the ground.

"I was just so in shock," she recalled. A nurse on the scene came to see if she was OK. "I couldn't stop crying in her arms because I was just in shock. … I didn't get any sleep that night because I was just thinking, 'what if this guy doesn't pull through?'"

Fortunately, Condon made a full recovery. Two weeks later, he and his wife, Carolyn, surprised O'Neil at the same beach where she saved his life. 

"I got to hug him and meet his whole family, and everyone was so great to me, but all I ever say is that I'm just so thankful that he's OK," she said. 

O'Neil, who rejects the "hero" title, credits her training, instincts and a bit of luck in the successful rescue. 

"[Condon and his wife] were sitting so far down on the private side of the beach, and for some reason, he miraculously ended up right in front of the lifeguard stand when he started needing help," O'Neil said. "There was no reason he should have been in the water right in front of my lifeguard stand. It could have happened after I was already off work. It’s crazy that it happened at that time right when I was there."

O'Neil is in her fourth summer as a lifeguard and has now made two rescues in her career. During her first summer, she saved an "active drowner," which is the term used for someone who is drowning but still alert and able to call for help. That rescue ended with applause and free ice cream from onlookers at the beach. 

This time, after what O'Neil called a "much more severe" rescue, the recognition has continued long after the incident in July. She has been approached by people throughout the community, thanking her for her bravery. And, in an "emotional" Aug. 5 meeting of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen, members honored O'Neil, beach department staff and the other Falmouth lifeguards for their roles in Condon's rescue.

"Everybody did everything right," Condon said at the meeting, according to the Falmouth Enterprise. "But, the key thing was [O'Neil] had to do it first." 

"We don't always see things that rise to this level," said Board Chair Megan English Braga. "But, every day, I know that you're out there and really being preventative… looking for those things that could become more dangerous. So, thank you so much."

O'Neil, who is a lifeguard at Elon, a member of the Elon club swim team and a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, plans to major in psychology and hopes to one day become a child psychologist or therapist. Lifeguarding has helped make her life's purpose clear. 

"I’ve always known that I wanted to go into a career that helps others, and lifeguarding has kind of put that into perspective for me," she said. "When you have to actually save someone’s life and really impact someone like that, it just really puts it into perspective for me that I really have a calling to help other people. It’s really been an important part of my development and growing up."