DULUTH, Minn. — Darby Voeks of Minneapolis decided last minute to take a trip to Duluth on Wednesday. He and a friend left at 4:30 in the morning after hearing it would be a great day for surfing on Lake Superior.
Voeks, 26, said he doesn't consider himself a surfer as he's still new to the sport but he's no stranger to athletics. Voeks coaches track for Richfield High School. He has also participated in Ironman triathlons, including ones to raise money for Richfield Young Life; Voeks helps run the youth mentoring nonprofit.
"I had no idea that training for a long, triathlon swim would prepare me for something like that," Voeks recalled.
As Voeks was getting ready to head home, he decided he wanted to catch one last wave at Park Point.
"I was supposed to head home to meet up with my girlfriend for dinner and I thought, 'Just one more wave. Maybe just one more wave.' I know that what good surfers do is they'll walk down the pier ... and they'll jump off the pier and kind of get to the main break without having to paddle all the way out there," Voeks said.
He was preparing to do that when a woman in a wheelchair approached him in the shipping canal, frantic.
"'I need help. Can you please help? Can you please help? My dog is drowning in the water and I think my aide went in after him,'" Voeks recalled her saying.
After the dog had gone into the water, the 29-year-old aide climbed down one of the ladders on the side of the pier and a wave knocked him off.
"I drop my surfboard and I just started running to the end of the pier," Voeks said.
But Voeks was having a hard time spotting him and the dog in the choppy waves.
"I'm not seeing anything, and then all of a sudden I just hear like a loud bellowing, 'Help!'" Voeks said. "'Help! Help! I can't swim.'"
Voeks was able to get the man, named Dominic, a LifeRing. It was a struggle but eventually he was able to hang on to one of the side ladders.
"We're pulling and finally he gets his hand where we can reach it and we grab him and we try to pull him up over the cement," Voeks said.
He went on to say, "Especially in shorts and a t-shirt, hypothermia was a real concern."
Then Voeks went in to rescue the dog, Alice.
"Jumped in and her instincts kicked in. She was such a sweet dog and was just terrified," Voeks said.
Voeks said he was the only surfer out there. Looking back on what led up to the rescue, he said, "There were way too many coincidences to just say, 'Oh, it was right place, right time. Lucky.' I believe that it was totally a God thing to have us be surfing and staying out that day and not coming home when we did and wanting to stay out longer and have me decide to just go one more wave, one more wave."
First responders arrived and both Dominic and Alice ended up being okay.
Later that day, Lt. Robin Roeser with the Duluth Police Department announced that he was nominating Voeks for the Duluth Citizen Partnership Award. It's a rare honor that's given out no more than once a year.
"You saved a life today. You saved a dog and you saved a person's life. We're extremely grateful," Lt. Roeser said to Voeks during a press conference Wednesday evening.
"I was having this chaotic but totally blissful surfing day, and there was someone fighting for their life yards away," Voeks said.
He later went on to say, "I hope this is a reminder – it certainly is for me – to be aware of the struggle that's going on right next to you, even when you don't see it, because it's there."
Voeks said he gave his number to the woman named Jennifer who came to him for help. She said she owes him dinner next time he's in Duluth.
Voeks will be participating in a triple Ironman this fall to raise funds for Richfield Young Life. You can learn more about the organization, here.