When a 17-year-old with Down Syndrome spotted two girls drowning, the teen, with a life full of surprising promise, tore across the beach and dove into the water. His dad plunged in after him, and lifeguards ran to the scene, but they were too late.
Valerio Catoia, a 17-year-old with Down Syndrome, was enjoying a leisurely afternoon at the beach with his dad and younger sister when horror struck. While soaking up the sun at Sabaudia Beach in the Italian region of Lazio, according to Aleteia, the family was reminded just how unpredictable the water is and how strong the tides can be.
Although the beach is a popular place to vacation, there’s some degree of risk every time you step into the surf. Those risks are compounded when inexperienced children venture into the water. Most keep a close eye on their kids, well aware of the dangers the ocean invites, but even the most watchful parents have experienced the travesties that a force as powerful as the sea can cause.
From shorebreaks to rip currents, ocean waters prove who’s boss, and it takes a skilled swimmer with immense strength to fight back against such conditions. Those without such high-level swimming abilities are often powerless against violent currents, which two girls learned the hard way while also enjoying the water at Sabaudia Beach.
As Valerio and his family played near the shore, their carefree afternoon was interrupted by the cries of the unnamed girls, ages 10 and 14. Unable to fight the current, the pair was dragged into the maw of the Tyrrhenian Sea and began to scream as they slipped under the forceful waves while being swept out to sea.
Valerio noticed the cry for help and decided to answer the call, plunging into the unforgiving water with his sights set on rescuing the girls. Valerio’s dad followed as both dove into the sea and headed in the direction of the drowning victims.
Although it’s typically better to leave rescue attempts to the professionals rather than onlookers risking their lives, Valerio wasn’t your average bystander, ABC reported. He knew the girls weren’t going to last long as their heads dipped under the water, and lifeguards were a distance away.
Luckily, the miracle the girls were praying for at that moment was swimming in their direction, and he wasn’t an ordinary beachgoer. Fearing he might have problems due to Down syndrome, Valerio’s parents had him take up swimming at the tender age of three to develop muscle strength.
His 14 years of experience in the water paid off. His swimming career had led him to regularly compete in the Special Olympics, collecting one medal after another. But, on this fateful day, his abilities resulted in something much more important than winning a competition.
Lifeguards ran to the scene as Valerio and his father dived into the water, determined to save the girls, but they were too late. The father and son beat them to the rescue, saving both girls. Armed with the knowledge he’d gained from a first-aid course, Valerio positioned the younger girl to keep her head above the surface.
Preventing her from inhaling seawater, the teen athlete successfully carried the girl back to shore. His father did the same, saving the life of the older child as well. After carrying the youngest girl to shore, much to the pride of his parents and friends, the teen received the oddest of responses from the child’s mother.
Rather than being greeted by a grateful parent, the woman snatched the 10-year-old away from her rescuer without any acknowledgment of the teen’s heroic efforts. Snubbing the young man who had just saved her daughter, she didn’t even offer a thank-you, according to a translation of a local outlet.
Luckily, others recognized the wonderful thing the athletic champion turned overnight hero had done. Soon, Valerio found himself making international headlines as many highlighted his heroic efforts and capturing the attention of prominent figures.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi praised his bravery and asserted that Italy should be proud to have citizens like him. Italian Sports Minister Lucca Lotti also applauded the boy, presenting the teen with the “Solidarity Champion of Italy” award and giving him a medal and a commemorative plate.
All the media attention led to the realization that Valerio Catoia isn’t just a hero, but he’s also a humble one. Explaining that the attitudes of people around him may have changed as his heroic deed became international news, he said he’s the same person he’s always been. If risking one’s life to save another isn’t a reason to pay tribute, however, I don’t know what is. Job well done, young man.