Atlantic Beach: Kristen Caulfield, 18, an Atlantic Beach lifeguard, was...

Atlantic Beach: Kristen Caulfield, 18, an Atlantic Beach lifeguard, was off duty yesterday evening when she saw a swimmer caught in a rip current in the ocean at a club where her family belongs. She plunged into the rough surf, and with the help of people on the beach pulling a tow line, pulled in a 5'11' 58-year-old man, she stands at the Atlantic Beach Club on Friday, September 3, 2010 in Atlantic Beach, New York. (Photo by Howard Schnapp) Credit: Photo by Howard Schnapp

Kristen Caulfield was done for the day.

After a busy shift at the Atlantic Beach Club warning swimmers about rip currents, the 18-year-old lifeguard headed to a nearby club Thursday evening and scanned the beach for her boyfriend.

She saw people running, pointing to a struggling swimmer.

She stripped down to her swimsuit and plunged into the water.

Mike Gimpel, 58, of Rockville Centre, was caught in a rip current. About 100 yards offshore at the Ocean Club, also in Atlantic Beach, he waved for help, fighting to stay afloat. It was about 7 p.m. The beach had been closed all day because of rip currents related to approaching Hurricane Earl. And the lifeguards had ended their shift an hour earlier.

Caulfield of Rockville Centre headed toward him, but another club member called her back. John Murray, 46, who trained Caulfield in the club's junior lifeguard program, had a better plan. Telling her to wait, he directed two people to the club's lifeguard shack to grab a harness connected to a 600-foot tow rope.

Caulfield slung it across her chest and swam toward Gimpel.

Waves buffeted her, pulling her under the surface for what felt like two minutes at a time.

"I felt like I was going to drown, too," she recalled Friday. "All the waves were crashing over."

After several tries, Caulfield grabbed hold of Gimpel and slipped the harness around both their bodies.

On shore, Murray and 14 others began to pull.

through the water, in and out, up and down. I swallowed a lot of water."

Club members who witnessed the rescue said lifeguard and swimmer were both in bad shape by the time they reached land.

Gimpel was so exhausted he could no longer speak. Caulfield was vomiting up seawater.

Both were taken to Long Beach Hospital and were released the same night.

On Friday, Gimpel visited Caulfield at the Atlantic Beach Club lifeguard shack. He apologized for what he put her through.

"I don't want to ever put anyone in that position," he said in a phone interview Friday. "She did a great job."

Gimpel said he swims three times a week. He didn't know about the rip current warning that day, he said.

"Usually it's never rough at that time," he said. "It just looked inviting. Next thing you know, I got caught just a little over my head."

Maurice Barbera, manager of Ocean Club, was on the beach as Caulfield fought to bring him in.

"It was a scary moment," he said. "That person has a guardian angel in Kristen."

Caulfield was back at work Friday, watching over the treacherous surf.

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