Benefield: SRJC swim champion Eric Gromala using his skill for water rescues

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Eric Gromala swam into the trailer and found an elderly woman holding her head above rising water with about a foot of breathing space left.

She was standing on what Gromala guessed was her now-submerged bed, tilting her head at an awkward angle so that she could take in air. Furniture, uprooted by floodwaters, floated around — making it difficult for Gromala to reach her.

When he did, it was hard for Gromala, an engineer with the Forestville Fire Department and a member of the swift-water rescue team, to assess how the woman was doing or how long she had been in the cold, dirty water.

“I couldn’t talk to her much,” he said. “It was both panic and shock and the water was pretty cold … she was in the water quite a long time. She was passing out when we were swimming to the shore.”

Gromala, 35, a former high school swimmer at El Molino and a 2004 state champion breaststroke specialist at Santa Rosa Junior College, has been a member of the water rescue crew since he joined the Forestville Fire Department full time in 2006. His services were in high demand last month as the Russian River rose to historic heights, causing massive floods and stranding people in homes and cars.

“The water came up quickly overnight,” Gromala said. “Everyone was sleeping and when they woke up, they realized they were flooded in.”

Gromala temporarily hung up his firefighter turnouts and pulled full-time water rescue duty.

“There were three or four days of being pretty busy,” he said.

When Press Democrat photographer Chris Chung captured the moment Gromala and fellow Forestville engineer Spencer Hansen rescued Jack Hulsey, 86, from his flooded home, Santa Rosa Junior College swim coach Jill McCormick reposted it to her team’s Instagram account. One of the hashtags she used was “#bearcub4life.”

In addition to swimming the breaststroke leg on the 400-yard medley state champion relay team, Gromala was a six-time All-American in 2004 as he studied to become a firefighter. And, according to McCormick, something of a legend.

And not necessarily for his swimming prowess.

Teamed up with his brother, Ian, Eric Gromala was a prankster a level or five beyond typical team hi-jinks.

Like the time McCormick walked onto the pool deck at the Quinn Swim Center on campus and didn’t see her standout breaststroker readying for practice.

“I said, ‘Where’s Eric?’ and all the guys are laughing and I’m trying to figure out where he is,” she recalled.

Eventually, she looked up.

Gromala had spider-climbed — a la American Ninja Warrior — between two concrete pillars that supported the ceiling and was perched about two stories above the pool deck.

“He was strong enough and athletic enough to get up there,” she said. “Everybody is laughing except me.”

Or the time he and his brother rewired her car so that when she used the turn signal, the windshield wipers went on, or when she turned on the headlights, the horn sounded.

“She had a rough time with us,” Gromala said.

Even when she thought she had their number, they did an end run. Like the time Gromala and some other swimmers snuck out of their hotel rooms. When they returned, they spotted McCormick parked out in front of the rooms eyeballing the doors. So they climbed in through an open back window.

“She was really motivated” to catch scofflaws, he said.

Once, just once, Gromala said he felt the brunt of McCormick’s true wrath. He thinks it was because there was a team function and he made the entire squad late. His coach was none too pleased. So she sternly invited the sprint specialist to jump in the pool and just start swimming.

“Instead of making me sit out, she made me do distance,” he said. “I pretended like I liked it. I just kept on swimming, pretending I was enjoying myself.

“We were the worst,” he said.

McCormick was relatively new to coaching when she had to deal with not one, but two Gromalas.

“I’d think, ‘Is this the day the Gromalas get me fired?’” she said.

But McCormick is chuckling as she recalls the legend of Gromala. She has a soft spot for competitors. And Eric Gromala was a competitor.

“He was a ferocious competitor (who) pushes way beyond the pain threshold,” she said.

More than once, she had to provide a trash can knowing that Gromala would swim until he lost his lunch.

“He was super explosive,” she said. “He was all about racing. He didn’t necessarily like to train hard; it was just the joy of competition. It was all about the hunt for him and he would unleash himself.”

And it’s telling that Gromala’s state championship win was in a relay, because when he speaks of his time as a Bear Cub and what he learned being a college athlete, it’s not necessarily about fitness or stroke technique.

“Teamwork,” he said. “Hanging out with the relay team — (relay) is where we excelled.”

And the Bear Cubs meant business.

“Most of the team had pretty good education goals, so that was a healthy group of people to hang out with,” he said. “We’d all study together and be in an organized group.”

“That’s the kind of stuff I do at work, still,” he said of his duties at Forestville Fire.

McCormick had the same thought. She was not surprised to see Chung’s photo last month of Gromala saving an elderly man from a desperate situation.

“My first thought was, ‘Of course,’” she said. “Of course he’s out there saving people.

“This is a guy who was unfazed by pressure,” she said. “That’s the type of person you want in that situation: Good humor, strong and fit, fearless and calm. It’s textbook.”

And despite their somewhat-rocky relationship early on, coach and swimmer remain close. Both now laugh at the pranks. For years, Gromala would show up for the team’s annual alumni meet — and win.

“He would come up and throw down,” McCormick said. “He’d barf afterward, but …”

And McCormick keeps Gromala’s All-American certificate pinned to the wall of her office. Of course it’s been modified and has a cut-out photo of a cowboy hat-wearing Gromala grinning and flexing for the camera behind a pair of sunglasses.

“He’s the perfect guy to be in water rescue,” she said. “Comfortable, athletic, super smart. And he’s super intuitive; he can MacGyver anything.”

Like the wiring system on a car, for example. Or a water rescue of a woman in truly dire straits.

Gromala said he figured out he wanted to be a firefighter at the JC — he’s wearing a Forestville Fire Swift Water Rescue baseball hat in his 2004 team mug shot. And he learned to be one, in some part, by being a Bear Cub. The work ethic, the team work, the shared goals.

“That team was awesome,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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