Life lessons: Mother takes on rip current education after daughter's drowning
On a recent Friday, 14 students sat in Room 164 at Garden City High School and about the same number listened remotely to a health class in which topics generally ranged from substance abuse to stress reduction and nutrition. Today’s lesson: rip currents. A lecture including images and video showed how to spot and navigate rip currents. A demonstration with a rubber strap helped simulate the tug of rip currents, a threat often overshadowed by the beauty of ocean beaches.
The lesson was created at the urging of Josephine de Moura, whose daughter Alexandra, a 2013 graduate and award-winning gymnast, drowned last summer in a rip current in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Since Alexandra’s death, her mother has been on a mission to increase education about the dangerous currents that can carry people out to the ocean.
"She didn’t know what to do with a rip current," Josephine explained. "I don’t think she even knew what a rip current was."
A little more than a year after Alexandra’s death, one of the first two-session rip current classes began.
"This was the reason for the program," said Tom Skrivanek, a middle school health and physical education teacher and lifeguard who created and teaches the program with middle school health and physical education teacher Dorothy Burke, who is also a lifeguard. "She was a college athlete, obviously in very good shape, and passed away tragically."
The message was clear: If this could happen to Alexandra, a good swimmer, it could happen to anyone.
"The kids are really responsive. The fact is, it didn’t happen a long time ago. We had students in the class who knew Alex," said Paul Cutter, a health and physical education teacher at the high school, which has not previously taught about the danger. "She sat in this health class. Tragically, she’s no longer with us. It hits home."
Isabel Byrnes, a 10th grader, said she was "scared about rip currents at the beginning of the lesson," but believed she was better "educated and prepared" afterward.
Carlos Jimenez said learning to spot and handle rip currents could be crucial. Thomas Sequeira said the lessons made sense because of "the lives lost every year due to lack of knowledge surrounding them."
"I think it’s really important to understand the ways and methods that are needed to survive in a situation like a rip current," said Stephanie Wang, another 10th grader.
So far this year, about 300 students have taken the rip current unit, which all 10th grade health students are scheduled to take. The district plans to offer the course to middle schoolers in the spring.
A star gymnast
Alexandra de Moura’s death on Aug. 4, 2019, left family, friends and acquaintances brokenhearted. Condolences poured in, including long letters expressing admiration and sorrow that her mother keeps in a box in Alexandra’s room.
"She was a great kid, a wonderful young lady," Cutter said. "She had so much in front of her, so much potential."
Alexandra won two New York State gymnastics championships and went on to a full gymnastics scholarship at The George Washington University, where she helped the Colonials win two Division 1 Conference championships including one as co-captain in her senior year.
"She wasn’t just an exceptional gymnast," said Chelsea Raineri, women’s gymnastics co-captain with Alexandra at GW. "She never went down without a fight."
Raineri recalled gym meets when hard work paid off. Alexandra was tough and persistent, a powerhouse who competed in floor, beam, vault and uneven bars.
"We would show up at meets, and Alex and I would scream, ‘Break down the gates’ as we pulled up to the arena," Raineri said. "We thought of it as we’re taking over."
Alexandra was named MVP as a gymnast, leader and mentor to other teammates in her senior year at George Washington.
"We won conference by a whole point. In gymnastics, a whole point is a lot," Raineri said.
Margie Foster Cunningham, head coach of women’s gymnastics at GW, put it simply. "She was intelligent, athletic, personable," she said. "She had everything going for her. She was just this beautiful, young person."
"The common denominator to describe my daughter is, she was extremely humble," Josephine added. "If I bragged about her in front of her? You didn’t do that."
Josephine said Alexandra chose gymnastics over soccer when she was 8 and never looked back. She trained at New Image Gymnastics in Brentwood, becoming a fierce competitor and generous teammate. In one photograph her mother keeps on her cellphone, two girls look in awe at Alexandra suspended in midair over a beam.
Alexandra graduated with a bachelor’s degree in organizational science in 2017 and was a few months from a master’s degree in tourism when she traveled in August 2019 to Cabo San Lucas with four friends, including her boyfriend, for a vacation.
The de Moura family found out a day after Alexandra had arrived that something had happened. Alexandra’s boyfriend called her older sister, Isabella, then living in Brooklyn, who reached her younger sister, Giovanna, who was at home before heading back to GW.
"My youngest daughter knocked on our bedroom door frantically," Josephine said of how she and Alexandre, Alexandra’s father, a surgeon, found out. "She said Alexandra was missing."
The de Mouras soon learned she had disappeared in the ocean. At first, the drowning made little sense to the de Mouras, who for years had a house in East Quogue, then in Westhampton and finally in Southampton.
Cunningham, Alexandra’s coach at GW, said she was a "good swimmer" who swam as part of gymnastics training.
"She went in the water in Los Cabos with two friends," Josephine said. "They were standing waist-deep in water. They weren’t swimming."
"They were fortunate enough to come out of it," Josephine said of the two young men Alexandra was with. "My daughter wasn’t. They couldn’t believe it, being she was so fit."
Alexandra’s body was recovered two days later at the beach where she had gone missing, Josephine said. Alexandra was mourned by hundreds later that month at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Garden City.
Motivated by grief
Afterward, Josephine de Moura embarked on a crash course in rip currents, gathering information from such websites and organizations as the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, Lifeguards Without Borders, the International Surfing Association and the International Drowning Research Alliance. She met with the Garden City schools Superintendent Kusum Sinha and collaborated with the American Red Cross to offer a rip-current session at George Washington; she also spoke to classes at the Wheatley School and at LIU Post.
"I felt I was speaking on behalf of my daughter, an athlete who didn't know about rip current," Josephine said. "I thought about how many other people who are not athletes didn't know."
According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, about two thirds (or 52 out of 82) fatal drownings reported nationwide through Oct. 10 of this year were due to rip currents.
"Over 100 people a year die of rip currents in the United States," said B. Chris Brewster, national certification committee chair for the association, a nonprofit professional organization of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. "That doesn’t appear to be going down."
Andrew Healey, a recreation supervisor for the Town of Hempstead and the New York State chief of certification for the Lifesaving Association, said rip currents account for most ocean lifeguard rescues on Long Island and nationwide.
This is true worldwide, too, according to the International Lifesaving Federation, which says rip currents "represent the major cause of rescues and fatalities at surf beaches around the world."
"Seventy-five or 80% of the rescues we make are rip current-related," he said. "A good lifeguard can recognize the rip current before people know they’re in it."
"It can happen anywhere. The rip currents aren’t always in the same place. The sandbar breaks open in one place, the next day it fills in," said Dr. Peter Wernicki, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. Rip currents, he added, "can be 10 miles an hour, which is faster than [Olympic gold-medalist] Michael Phelps can swim."
Long Islanders die every year because of rip currents here and elsewhere. Just this year, the Lifesaving Association cited rip current as the reason for the drownings of a 24-year-old on May 22 at Rockaway Beach; a 57-year-old on July 12 on Westhampton Beach; and a 22-year-old Aug. 18 in Napeague.
Just a day before Garden City’s rip current lessons began, newlyweds Mohammad Malik, 35, and Dr. Noor Shah, 29, drowned on Oct. 28 in a rip current during their honeymoon in Turks and Caicos four days after marrying at the Carltun in the Park in East Meadow.
"It's a devastating loss," Mohammad Malik’s father, Col. R. Maqbool Malik of Garden City Park, told Newsday. "This is a shock beyond belief."
How rip currents work
Experts note that many people confuse the term "riptides" for rip currents.
"It’s not a tidal phenomenon," Brewster said. "Rip currents are caused by surf pushing water up the slope of the beach and gravity pulling water back out to sea."
Rip currents typically do not pull people "under," but out — although swimmers may be battered by waves at the same time.
"If you don’t know how to deal with a rip current, your natural instinct is to swim back to shore," Healey explained about the often-narrow currents. "You can’t swim successfully against a rip current."
Rip currents often lead people to become exhausted, causing them to go under. "They start swimming toward shore and making no progress," Brewster said. "That panic builds up."
The National Weather Service — which also issues statements for area beaches when rip currents are present or expected — is succinct about what to do if you find yourself tugged out to sea.
"If caught in a rip current, relax and float, and do not swim against the current," the service’s website advises. "If able, swim in a direction following the shoreline. If unable to escape, face the shore and yell or wave for help."
Healey said people who understand and know how to handle rip currents have a much better chance of surviving.
"The biggest thing you need to do is public education," he said. "We have to get the message out."
Working for change
A few weeks before teachers in Garden City launched their rip current curriculum, Josephine de Moura met with and won over to her cause State Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Garden City).
"We want to get a bill drafted and introduce it for the new legislative session," Ra said about potential ocean and rip current education bill. "Knowing the basics, if you get caught up in it, can really save your life."
Ra was touched by Alexandra’s life and the loss experienced by her family and community — a loss that might have been prevented by education. "I think it takes a very strong person to have something like that happen and say, ‘I’m going to see what I can do to make sure this doesn’t happen to somebody else,’" Ra said.
Josephine de Moura said she is carrying on Alexandra’s legacy, fighting to prevent other lives from ending too soon.
"I felt an urge from her to get the word out. There’s not enough awareness or education," Josephine said. "It’s something that you hear about after the fact."
In addition to working toward the Garden City program, the de Mouras have launched a foundation named for Alexandra, seeking to raise money for rip current education.
And George Washington University’s gymnastics program has launched a scholarship in Alexandra’s honor in addition to a roughly 30-minute rip current safety curriculum with the slogan "Get a grip on the rip."
"I’m grateful that I had time with her. She was such a special person," said Cunningham, Alexandra’s coach at GW. "I think we will be saying Alex’s name for many years. That’s our goal. She won’t be forgotten. We’re going to keep her legacy alive."
In addition to being attentive to weather statements and advisories when heading to the beach, Long Islanders can access the following resources to learn to spot and survive rip currents, the strong currents that move away from the shore.
- American Red Cross: Find tips, online tutorials and where to take swimming classes, nwsdy.li/RedCrossBeachSwimming
- National Weather Service: “How to avoid getting caught in a rip current” and more, weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent and weather.gov/safety/ripcurrent-webinar
- U.S. Lifesaving Association: Rip-currents, usla.org/page/ripcurrents
- University of North Carolina: “Predict the Rip,” a tutorial, science.unctv.org/content/predict-rip
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