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Worthington man saves teen from drowning on Lake Okabena

Worthington resident Mike Harlow is pictured with his kayak, which he used to save a teenager from drowning in Lake Okabena.(Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Mike Harlow, 30, feels fortunate to own house on Lake Avenue that looks right out onto Lake Okabena.

The beautiful location has its perks. In fact, it helped him save the life of a fellow Worthington resident.

On June 23, his wife Katie had her parents over, and the family was enjoying a beautiful Friday afternoon at the house. It was a cool, windy day, so Harlow went upstairs to open the windows. Looking out the window, he noticed an adorable husky puppy and a small child walking around.

Harlow walked downstairs to open the ground-level windows, then stepped outside to check out the puppy. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a colorful tube floating on Lake Okabena, without anyone on it. That’s weird, he thought.

Something had caught the attention of the puppy. Harlow heard it, too — the sound of kids screaming by the park. Of course, kids are always yelling and making noise at the park. No big deal.

Then Harlow heard a deep, bloodcurdling scream — one that he will never forget.

“Help!”

About 300 yards from the shore, past the lake’s swimming area, Harlow saw a young man in the water, struggling to stay afloat.

Flooded with a sense of panic, Harlow knew he had to act quickly. He ran back inside and asked Katie’s father, Jerry, to help him get his kayak out from the garage. With the blue single-seat kayak in hand, Harlow ran down toward the embankment, briefly turning around to catch a life jacket Katie threw to him.

Frantically paddling towards the young man, Harlow saw his head bobbing up and down in the water.  

“Don’t go under,” Harlow kept thinking to himself, because as an inexperienced swimmer, Harlow knew he wouldn’t be able to dive under and grab him.

He cut it close, but Harlow was just able to reach the young man in time. Harlow gave him a life jacket, and the two waited for a few minutes to rest.

Nick Ramirez, 16, certainly didn’t envision his day going like this. He was expecting a fun afternoon at the lake, as he and his friends had bought a couple tubes to mess around with in the water.

Hanging out in the tube, Ramirez realized he was floating out farther than he expected. On a windy day with currents going against him, he couldn’t push himself back toward the shore, and he continued to be pushed deeper into the lake.

Knowing he had to get closer to shore, Ramirez positioned himself in the middle of the tube and started to swim, but the winds became so extreme they blew the tube away and out of reach. Just like that, he was alone, hundreds of yards from the shore and his friends, who couldn’t swim.

Ramirez alternated between swimming on his back and doggy paddling to keep afloat, but after 15 minutes, he was starting to get tired. It didn’t help that he had just been through physical therapy that morning for a knee injury he sustained doing track.

He screamed for help, and luckily, help came. Running on pure adrenaline, Ramirez put all of his focus on keeping above water, as he watched Harlow paddle toward him. He couldn’t feel his arms, so his legs were working overtime to support his body.

“I’m almost good, I just have to stay up,” he kept thinking to himself.

When Harlow got to him, the sense of relief overwhelmed Ramirez. Harlow instructed Ramirez to hold on to the kayak, but Ramirez’s arms had become useless at that point. After putting a life jacket on Ramirez, Harlow tied him to the kayak, and towed him back to shore.

When they reached land, the completely exhausted Ramirez collapsed onto the solid ground. But he was safe and sound, and the only thing on his mind was “thank you.”

“He didn’t have to do that, but it was really great of him,” Ramirez said. “He really went out of his way to save me.”

Ramirez isn’t sure how much longer he would have lasted. The police were called, but it would have taken them at least another five to 10 minutes to get a boat out, and Ramirez said he probably wouldn’t have been able to stay afloat that long.

Harlow, a Rochester native, moved to Worthington in 2014. He currently works as a pharmacist at Walmart.

He’s still surprised he even had the opportunity to save Ramirez.

For one, he works every other Friday, and this just happened to be his off day. The beautiful, breezy day meant Harlow opened his windows, which meant he saw the cute puppy, which meant he went outside and heard the scream for help. Without Katie and her parents there to help him get the kayak out, and the life jacket, he might not have made it on time.

“I never want to have to do it again,” Harlow said. “But it was just one of those situations where everything had to line up.”

Harlow encouraged anyone who wants to go into the lake to be careful, and if they can, go through water safety courses. The Worthington Area YMCA teaches swimming and water safety courses for people of all ages.

“If you’re going to leave your friends, buddy up, don’t go out there alone, and make sure you’re safe,” Harlow said.

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