The most inspiring among us don’t seek accolades or recognition; they simply follow their passion for paddling.

Divittorio at home on the South Fork American. | PHOTO BY DARIN MCQUOID

Divittorio at home on the South Fork American. | PHOTO BY DARIN MCQUOID

Story by Conor Mihell

Kayaker Mark Divittorio calls the euphoric sensation of finishing a run on a favorite river "that takeout feeling." The 42-year-old real estate broker from Coloma, Calif., was feeling that buzz after an April solo run on the Kyburz section of the South Fork American River when the horrific squeal, bang and splash of a vehicle careening off Highway 50 brought him back down to earth.

"It was obvious that I was the one who'd be first on the scene with some horrible decisions to make," Divittorio says.

Scarcely 200 feet away, a GMC Denali had swiped a granite mile marker and plunged into the river. The SUV came to rest on its passenger side, hood pointing downstream. Still wearing his drysuit, PFD and helmet, Divittorio motioned to a bystander to call for help and plunged into the river to attempt a rescue. Immediately, he observed twin 15-year-old girls extricating their 4-year-old sister from the backseat of the vehicle. He carried the three girls through waist-deep water to shore.

"It was pretty miraculous that the twins were able to get their kid sister out of her car seat and then out of the vehicle," says Divittorio. "I think they saved her life." Next, Divittorio faced the challenge of extracting the girls' father, who was pinned in the driver's seat and falling in and out of consciousness due to the pain of a shattered pelvis. Complicating matters, the man was big—about 300 pounds.

"I thought, 'What do I do here?'" recalls Divittorio. "The guy's trapped, he's not doing well and there's water flooding the vehicle. I had to get him out of there." Fortunately, the water level settled just below head level, giving Divittorio time to stabilize the man and make a plan. He considered cutting the seatbelt with his river knife, but realized it was the only thing holding the man's head above the water. Divittorio was still running singlehanded triage when a fire truck arrived. It took a metal cutter and compressor to slice open the vehicle, and a dozen firefighters to backboard the man across the river and up the bank.

Divittorio brushed off a television interview to paddle the American again the next day, but he couldn't escape the media circus for long. He was soon swept up in a new sensation of otherworldliness, sharing the story with CNBC, Good Morning America and the Wall Street Journal. All the while, he attributed his levelheaded response to an emergency medical technician course—and the preparedness developed through 24 years of paddling whitewater.

"Kayaking put me there," says Divittorio, "and it also gave me the skills and the mindset to deal with it."

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