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Jacksonville University student wins highest civilian hero award for ocean rescue

The Carnegie Medal honors people like Ross Johnson who threw their lives on the line to save another.

NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. — A Jacksonville University student will have a top national honor to add to his resume when he graduates next year.

Ross Johnson was chosen for the Carnegie Medal for an ocean rescue in May, 2020.

“We were early to a dinner with some friends out there, and my mom said, ‘Hey let’s take a quick walk out on the beach,'" Johnson said. 

Johnson never planned to go back to the beach the day Tropical Storm Alfred hit – he’d been surfing in Neptune Beach all morning until the conditions got a little too rough.

But he and his family had some time to kill before dinner on Atlantic Boulevard.

“Heard a lady calling for help," said Johnson. "Started pointing out to the surf saying her nephew was swept out.”

Johnson says he could see her 13-year-old nephew about 450 feet from the shore.

There wasn’t a lifeguard on duty, so he and his family started looking for a surfboard, boogie board, anything to help rescue him, but couldn't find anything.

“I threw off my shirt, shoes, everything and took off into the surf," Johnson said.

It wasn’t an easy rescue. Johnson says the boy told him he didn’t know how to swim and started pushing Johnson down while he tried to pull them both in.

Meanwhile, he was fighting four foot waves caused by the storm.

“Swallowing saltwater, having trouble breathing," Johnson said. "I realized, if I didn’t change something, both of us were going to be drowned out there.”

He leaned on some of his Eagle Scout lifesaving knowledge, threw the boy on his chest, and started backstroking.

He got them close enough to shore that his father and another man could grab the boy.

“Floated, limped onto the beach," Johnson said. "I don’t remember ever being that exhausted before. I was 100% on empty.”

Johnson’s willingness to lay his life on the line to save a stranger earned him a Carnegie Medal, America’s highest civilian honor for heroism.

The experience hasn’t kept Johnson out of the water, in fact, he’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“Trying to stay in shape so if something ever happens again I’m willing to give my best effort, do what ever I can to help.”

Johnson was joined by 15 other Carnegie Medal recipients in June, including retired NFL Defensive End Brandon Bair, who saved a man from a burning truck.


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