Robert Caslin was about 100 meters away from the shore at Lake Monona when he heard a sputtering scream about 20 meters behind him.
“Help! Help! I’m drowning!”
Caslin—a two-time CrossFit Games athlete in the Masters 60+ Division—had to make a decision: Keep moving and leave it to someone else to come to the rescue, or turn back and throw away his first score of the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games.
Caslin, 62, met Will Powell, four-time CrossFit Games masters athlete and three-time champion, two years ago in his first CrossFit Games appearance. The two became fast friends.
When Run Swim Run—a 500-m swim sandwiched by two 1.5-mile runs—was announced as the masters’ first event, Powell and Caslin both were concerned about how Powell would fare.
“I can survive in the water, but I’m not a very good swimmer,” Powell said.
But it’s not just that. Powell, 57, is host to a 12-cm tumor growing in the outside lining of the lower lobe of his right lung. As the mass—which is benign—grows, it pushes further into his lung, decreasing his lung capacity and resulting in shortness of breath. Powell has surgery scheduled on Wednesday to remove the tumor.
“Basically I have a lung and a half,” he said.
Caslin suggested Powell end the event after the first 1.5-mile run.
“But I decided to at least give it a try,” Powell said.
For the first dozen meters, he moved through Lake Monona’s gentle waves with a decidedly slow sidestroke. Caslin cast him a wary eye as he overtook his friend about halfway to the first buoy.
A few moments later, he heard Powell’s cries.
Powell had gone “as far as I thought I could safely swim,” he said, but now he was out of breath and too far out to touch bottom and stand. He called for a boat, but his friend was faster.
When Caslin saw Powell slink beneath the surface, the choice was easy.
“I turned around and went back,” he said, unwilling to risk the time it might take for someone else to come to Powell’s aid.
Powell, exhausted, managed to fight to the surface only to dip back down thrice more before Caslin reached him. Panic set in.
“Then I feel this person grab me from behind and just kind of lift me up and hold me afloat, and it was him,” Powell said, noting that Masters 55-59 rookie, Gus VanDerVoort, assisted as well.
Though he was exhausted, Powell urged Caslin to continue the race.
“I said, ‘I'm OK Bob, I want you to go on, don't ruin your race,’” he recalled.
Caslin would have none of it.
“Not finishing this is not gonna ruin my race; what's gonna ruin it is if you die,” Caslin replied. “I'm not going anywhere until we make sure you're safe.”
Caslin estimated it was about seven minutes when a kayak arrived on the scene. As Powell gripped the edge, Caslin towed him toward shore until a judges motorboat arrived to complete the rescue.
Judges gave Caslin the option to return to his previous position in the water; instead, he opted to ride with Powell to shore, “just to make sure that he got back OK,” Caslin said.
“At the end of the day, it's CrossFit, and we're all in this together,” he continued. “It's not about one event, it's not about one weekend—it's a community.”
“It goes back to the fact that these masters inspire everybody beneath them to take what resources they have and just do the best with it,” he said. “We show these (younger) guys how we can compete against each other and leave the egos aside, and make our relationships more important than winning or losing.”
During the short ride to shore, Powell recovered his breath.
The pair shook themselves off and took off running for the final 1.5 miles, though neither would receive credit for the work. They crossed the finish line hand-in-hand, and Powell turned to his fellow competitor.
“Thanks for saving my life,” he told Caslin.
“I just can't thank him enough,” Powell continued. “He and Gus—it just meant so much to me that he would say, ‘Forget about this competition. Your life is more important than anything out here and I'm gonna stay with you.’”