Levi Gibson’s countless hours swimming during his 13 years competing on swim teams — including 21 hours practicing a week in the pool during his recently finished freshman year at college — paid off in a big way on June 13. It wasn’t for a medal or award, but to help save the lives of two men.
“I was in the right place at the right time to help,” Gibson said when interviewed on June 14. Gibson, a 2019 Fairfield High School graduate and the son of Jason and Julie Gibson, was boating with friends on Holter Lake when a nearby boat with six people on board flipped during a strong windstorm.
Gibson said he and the party he was with were just coming ashore due to the weather conditions and strong winds when the boat capsized. He didn’t see the boat go over but saw others nearby assisting the girls who were in the boat out of the water. He recalled quickly assessing the situation and instinct took over. He ran and dove off the dock, first aiding one of the men from the boat who was being helped by another gentlemen. “The rescuer was having a hard time in the waves bringing the man all the way to shore, so I was able to grab ahold and bring the then utterly exhausted man to shore,” Gibson said. He later found out the first man he helped to the shore shared his first name, Levi Waldner Corny.
Gibson turned and saw another rescuer holding onto the boat and trying to keep another boater on top of the vessel. “The waves were pulling the other man away,” he said. He dove and swam back to the boat, battling the waves. Gibson estimated it was 25 yards away, but reports of the incident afterwards said it was much farther.
It all happened so fast, Gibson said. The second man, who he later found out was Luke Hofer, was face-down on the boat struggling to get air. “Josh Hofer, who had been in another boat, was doing everything he could to hang onto him and try to roll him over,” he said. From his angle and with help from Josh, Gibson was able to turn Luke over. “He wasn’t doing so great and couldn’t be moved immediately. From somewhere, someone threw Gibson a life jacket and he was able to strap it onto the almost unconscious man. With the lifejacket on Luke, Gibson was able to safely swim with him to shore, where emergency medical technicians were waiting.
Once all persons from the boat were safe, a group of about 10 volunteers assisted in saving the boat as well.
When telling his story of what happened, Gibson was very humble and made a big point of saying it was a huge group effort in which he had a small part. Everyone who was there and who could help, did help, he said. “If I was ever in this situation, I would hope someone would do the same for me,” Gibson said.
His experience and endurance as a swim team member helped him battle the strong waves in the water, he said. Firefighters, EMTs and a Fish and Game warden all responded to the incident. Gibson laughed when he said once they realized he had been involved in the rescue, the EMT wanted to check him out for any ill effects of swimming. “I’m used to breathing water,” he assured them. This was just Gibson’s second time out in a boat and first time at Holter Lake.
Julie Gibson, Levi’s mom and a teacher at Choteau Public Schools, said the story didn’t stop there. Levi, using someone else’s phone because he lost his in the lake, called his parents to let them know what had happened. Levi knew everyone was alive when he left but wondered about how they were recovering. He wondered if he would ever find out. With the help of a Facebook post, Julie discovered one of her former students, Paddy Jo Sangwin, was one of the people involved in the boating accident. They communicated back and forth determining Levi was one the rescuers who helped.
Through Sangwin, Gibson was able to put names to most of the people involved in the boating accident and those who assisted. People in the boat in addition to Sangwin were Luke Hofer, Hannah Oilfield, Stephanie Kervie, Mike Wipf and Levi Waldner Corny. Several on the boat helped each other to the surface from under the boat. Boaters in other vessels helped them to the shore. Levi, Josh Hofer, Wade Frey, Lyndon Diem and Chad Baer and others in the water were able to right the boat and get it to shore as well.
Gibson said the water was cold and could take a toll on someone pretty quick. He said the temperature of the water and the large wind-tossed waves raced through his mind a couple times as he was helping those in the water, but those thoughts didn’t slow him down.
Gibson talked to Luke Sunday evening. Luke thanked him, saying he could have died without the help he received. He said his little girl wouldn’t have had her daddy for Father’s Day.
Julie said teaching her children how to swim has been important to her family. Her father’s brother drowned in a swimming pool when he was in high school. Levi and his siblings all competed on swim team. In fact, Julie said as part of the swim team practices when she and her husband were coaches, the older team members would swim one day a week with sweatpants and a sweatshirt on. “It gave them the experience if they were to go overboard on a boat and were dressed for cooler temperatures what it would be like to swim,” she said. In rescuing someone, Levi stressed the importance of removing one’s shoes and shirt before diving into the water; that much clothing will weigh a rescuer down and make it a challenge to move in the water, he added.
Levi swam with a group based in Great Falls two years ago, where he had additional training. For one of his practices in Great Falls, his coach, Patrick King had them do the Coast Guard physical fitness test. During that test, he taught the kids how to drag a person through waves. He told them how to do it and had them drag each other 200 yards. Gibson said that’s how he knew what to do with the waves; he remembered what his coach had said two years ago.
Gibson’s father Jason echoed the comments of his wife the importance of learning to swim. “You don’t know when you are going to need the skills,” he said. Jason added that is why having a pool in Fairfield and other small communities is important for youngsters to learn and safely swim and why Swim Days and celebrations such as that to support pools are also important.
Julie has a lot of faith in her children’s ability to swim, but has a lot of faith in general. She said on Friday afternoon Levi texted her and asked whether they had plans Saturday because he had been invited to go to the lake. “I immediately texted him, concrete at 7 a.m. Go to the lake,” she said. “I felt with certainty he had to go to the lake. Concrete was concrete, we would figure it out.”
She went on to explain that Levi stayed and poured concrete and then went to the lake. “We didn’t even ask which lake,” she said. “During the afternoon, I felt a need to thank God for Levi’s safety and then prayed a sentence for everyone’s safety around him and thanked God for Levi’s swimming ability. No idea why. After that, Jason felt compelled to text and ask Levi if he was out of the water. The wind was coming up, but there was no answer.” Julie said Levi called shortly after and told them about the boating accident.
“He certainly was in the right place at the right time,” Julie said.
Levi began competitively swimming when he was 7 years old. He swam one year on the Harlem swim team before the family moved in Fairfield and he joined the Sail Fish swim team. As a junior in high school, Gibson decided he wanted to swim in college and joined the USA Swimming program allowing him to swim competitively year-round.
Despite starting at this level late in the game, he improved quickly and took time off all his races and holds the fastest time in the 50 freestyle and 50-breaststroke out of any swimmer from Great Falls.
Gibson elected to go to school at George Fox University, approximately 20 miles south of Portland, Oregon. He is majoring in biomedical engineering and exercise science. He’s not only a member of the Bruin’s swim team, but also the track and field team for pole-vault and high jump. Gibson received a scholastic scholarship to attend George Fox. The Division III university doesn’t award athletic scholarships; they want the athletes to compete for the love of the sport instead of receiving funding for an education.
Gibson connected with the swim coach through his profile on the Next College Student Athlete website. Following a visit to the campus and a discussion with both the swim coach and track coach, it just came together, Gibson said. He found success his freshman year with the 50 and 100 freestyle races, finishing in the top eight in the school’s conference, and in the 100-breaststroke race. At college, Gibson usually trains in the water four hours a day for a total of about 21 hours a week. The team averages two meets a week during the season. There are nine teams in the school’s division.
With his times in the 50-freestyle race, Gibson qualified to complete in the USAS Futures Championships competition in Fargo, North Dakota, for the summer of 2020. This meet is often a stepping stone to compete in Olympic trials. However, due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, the meet was cancelled. Gibson is hoping they may invite the athletes scheduled for the meet to compete next year.
His freshmen year of track was also stopped because of coronavirus. “We had practiced for several weeks before everything was shut down,” he said.
Gibson topped off his freshmen year by receiving the Bruin Award. The award is given annually at the “Georgies,” a celebration of Bruin athletics, to one athlete from each sport who best exemplifies service to their fellow students, excels in the classroom and is an active participant in community service.
Levi received the award as a freshman for the swimming program.