By Keith Stillwell for ATALeadershipNOW.com
Mr. Pete Pretorius has always been a hero to his wife and sons, but this summer, he earned the title from another family and the respect of many others. Mr. Pretorius and his family were winding down a visit on Sunday, July 11, 2010, to White Rock on Semiahmoo Bay near Surrey, British Columbia. His sons were practicing Taekwondo forms on the beach when Mr. Pretorius heard screams and shouts for help. A woman was standing in the water, waving her arms and pointing to a small shape bobbing and floundering a few hundred feet offshore. While others stood by, none appeared to hear or heed her call, and no certified lifeguard was in sight. Mr. Pretorius wasted no time in throwing off his beach gear and charging into the water to the stranger's rescue.
"It happened so fast," Mr. Pretorius told a Surrey Now reporter. "I was thinking I better do this right – I don't want my wife raising our kids on her own."
The heart-pounding swim through whitecaps and cold ocean water to reach the drowning man gave Mr. Pretorius enough time to think. He knew that drowning persons are so panicked that they often cause their would-be rescuers to drown along with them, and he was determined not to let that happen. As a 1st Degree Black Belt in Songahm Taekwondo, Mr. Pretorius can deliver a number of stunning strikes.
None were necessary, though, because the drowning man appeared to be in grave distress: his efforts to stay afloat were subsiding, and Mr. Pretorius could see him surfacing less frequently. Mr. Pretorius grabbed the man's wrist and got behind him (a self defense tactic) so that the man couldn't drown him. He then grabbed the man around the chest under his arm and began side-swimming with a scissor kick back toward the distant shore.
"He'd basically just given up," Mr. Pretorius told Lorene Keitch of the Cloverdale Reporter. "I don't know if he's breathing and I shout at him to breathe, but he's just lying there with no response." Blood was gushing from the man's mouth.
Fortune favors the prepared mind – and body in this case, as Mr. Pretorius, the man's de facto lifesaver, was fundamentally prepared. He works diligently to stay in great shape – and action readiness – with good nutrition, cross training, Taekwondo and an exercise program called Warrior X-Fit at Cloverdale Black Belt Academy. Mr. Pretorius is a world class athlete and avid runner, in fact, a potential contender for Olympic gold in 400m hurdles some time back, denied the opportunity to compete due to international conflict. In that desperate swim to safety with a man's life in his hands, Mr. Pretorius needed mental fortitude to match his physical strength.
"The way back was a lot farther than the way in," he said. Mr. Pretorius focused his energy on doing 15 strokes at a time, then allowing his feet to sink and reach for the bottom. Finally his toes felt seaweed and sand, and he laboriously pulled the unconscious middle-aged man onto the pebbled beach. It was then Mr. Pretorius could see the source of the man's bleeding was his severely bitten tongue. His belly was greatly distended from swallowing seawater. As Mr. Pretorius and the man's family struggled to bring him ashore, the man came to and began coughing up water and blood. The family then hustled him into a waiting vehicle and presumably rushed him to an area hospital. "There was a lot of divine intervention," Mr. Pretorius told Surrey Now.
"It was so surreal," Mr. Pretorius told the Cloverdale Reporter. "Here I am swimming for my life and his, and the next second I'm sitting on a log waiting for my pants to dry." The identity and current condition of the man saved from drowning in Semiahmoo Bay that day is not known, but Mr. Pretorius expressed his hope that the man is well now. Despite his brave and selfless act, and the hopeful outcome, Mr. Pretorius remains very humble about the experience. He seems mildly embarrassed about the minor celebrity status granted by friends and strangers who learn of the incident.
Asked by his father, Dr. Peter Pretorius, a prestigious Dean Emeritus in British Columbia, how he could take such a risk when he has a family to care for, Mr. Pretorius simply replied "I just couldn't sit there and do nothing while someone was in need." He stated that he didn't do it for the thanks, only because of a faith and hope for humanity that if his loved ones were in such desperate danger, a stranger would be willing to do the same for them.
Mr. Pretorius credits his six years training in Songahm Taekwondo at WTTU school Cloverdale Black Belt Academy, for his mental and physical readiness to react properly in unexpected or dangerous situations. He said they practice slapping the hand away and evading attacks by getting behind the attacker, a tactic he employed during the rescue. Knockout target training is also part of the self defense regimen, but fortunately for both the man and his rescuer, no self defense action was required. As a Leadership member at the academy, Mr. Pretorius shares knowledge and perfects skills teaching basic Songahm Taekwondo classes to novice adults.
"They are focused on training you for the unexpected," Mr. Pretorius told the Cloverdale Reporter. "And they are not just training you Taekwondo; they're training you to be a good person. Many people think martial arts is about fighting. It's about the exact opposite. It's about being aware enough to avoid a fight and, in this case, to be a good citizen."
Mrs. Karen Bennett, 5th degree black belt, owner of Cloverdale Black Belt Academy and Mr. Pretorius's Taekwondo and Warrior X-Fit Instructor, beams with pride discussing her long-time student. "Pete is so humble, and this (the rescue) was his big moment. He's also brilliant, and an extreme athlete. We are really honored that he joined us and trusts us with his training. You should see his awesome jump kicks!"
The positive life skills curriculum, virtues like respect, courtesy and loyalty, that accompanies martial arts practice is central to Taekwondo, unlike many other martial arts. This remains a key factor in the success of WTTU schools like Cloverdale Black Belt Academy. "We are so lucky to have a program that isn't just about kicking and punching, but about making people better and really changing lives. We have ladies who have lost inches and about 60 lbs. through Warrior X-fit and Taekwondo. Their arms are getting toned again. We have several autistic children who are all excelling. So many success stories just make me really proud of the work we do every day."
Mr. Pretorius said he, his wife (also a Black Belt), and his sons (one currently a Red/Black Belt, the other a Brown belt) will continue training in martial arts and Leadership for the challenges and opportunities that life throws their way. He has set an amazing example for them and for us, but thanks his Instructors for his attitude. "This is how David and Karen teach – to always be very aware, and to make self-sacrifice for others when necessary." In everyday acts of courtesy and selflessness, and with occasional terrifically heroic feats, Songahm Taekwondo is changing the world, one Black Belt at a time!