A SOUTH Otago teenager, who rescued his brother from perilous surf, is the youngest-ever recipient of a prestigious international bravery award.
Last week, Sri Lankan-born Kalya Kandegoda Gamage, of Chrystalls Beach near Milton, was presented with the Commonwealth Mountbatten Medal for bravery in a surf rescue, during a special assembly at Tokomairiro High School, in Milton.
The courageous 14-year-old plucked his 12-year-old brother Kithmi from violent 3m surf at the remote Chrystalls Beach in August last year, after a family walk took a near-calamitous turn when Kithmi was pulled from the shore by a rogue wave.
Kalya’s last words to his family before plunging into the freezing breakers were, ‘‘OK Mum, I’m going out. I might not be back’’.
The Royal Life Saving Society New Zealand presents the award to a maximum of one individual a year, for displaying conspicuous gallantry during a surf rescue or rescue attempt.
It was instituted in 1951 by the society’s then-grand president, Earl Mountbatten, of Burma.
Society secretary Judi Jessop said Kalya was notable both for being a nonprofessional surf lifesaver, and for his age, making him the youngest-ever recipient of the medal.
‘‘Only 58 people have received the award . . . most of them professional lifeguards or similar, and none as young as Kalya.
‘‘It’s an outstanding achievement for him, both in terms of the rescue and the award. Given the conditions on that day, it’s a miracle both he and his brother survived.’’
The boys had both trained in water safety and lifesaving in their native Sri Lanka.
‘‘It just illustrates the importance of young people learning these basic water survival skills.’’
Kalya and his brother seemed unfazed both in reliving the incident, and by the unexpected attention.
Walking along the edge of the pounding surf, a wave had taken Kithmi by surprise and quickly carried him about 60m into the water.
‘‘Suddenly it had become an emergency. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I jumped into the ocean,’’ Kalya said.
He felt ‘‘heartfelt gratitude’’ to his Sri Lankan surf trainers, and thanked the many local people and emergency service personnel who had rushed to the family’s aid.
‘‘I’m incredibly honoured to receive this award.’’
Among those on the scene last August was Kalya’s family employer, dairy farmer Tony McDonnell.
Mr McDonnell described the ocean conditions on the day as ‘‘the worst [he’d] ever seen’’.
‘‘It was angry. I remember thinking to myself, if I was standing there at the foot of one of those waves, I’d be looking up at it and imagining all those tonnes of water crashing down on me.
‘‘It was the best possible outcome, and today we’re delighted for Kalya. There’s no young man more deserving.’’