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Life saver: 10-year-old out for first swim of the season saves 2-year-old at Patterson Lake

Mackenzie Wilkinson, 10, of Belfield, leaves the water at Patterson Lake near Dickinson on Thursday. Wilkinson was camping at the park with her grandparents when the soon-to-be birthday girl managed to save a young boy from drowning in the lake on Tuesday.

Ten-year-old Mackenzie Wilkinson managed to save a little boy from drowning on Tuesday, despite never having taken a formal swimming lesson in her life.

She was swimming for the first time this season at Patterson Lake near Dickinson when she noticed a small child, around age 2, face down in the water wearing a lifejacket.

She snapped to action, grabbing her pool noodle and urging the young one to grab on.

Her grandparents, Bob and Jean Henderson, witnessed the whole thing.

"Next thing I know, Mackenzie's coming up with this kid and this woman grabs this baby -- he's maybe 2 or so -- and she came over to me and she said, 'That little girl saved my baby,'" Bob said.

Her mom, Cherie Wilkinson, credits Mackenzie tagging along to a CPR class last summer with her quick response.

"She's too young to have the certification, but she went through the certification class," Cherie said. "She was so excited about it. She went home and made her dad lie on the floor and act like he was dying, it was really cute."

Mackenzie's life-saving feat caught the attention of TV news, which quickly spread to friends and family online.

Mackenzie loves swimming, but the municipal pool in her hometown of Belfield is rarely open.

"This year they did fill the pool, it was full and the water was clear and then all of a sudden they didn't open it," Cherie said. "Then there's nothing here for the kids to do during the summertime."

The life-saving event might lead to a career, or at least a summer job, for Mackenzie, who said she would like to be a lifeguard at the Belfield pool.

"So they could have it open more," Mackenzie said.

While several other area pools host swimming lessons over the summer, it's hard for Cherie to get the time off work and drive to lessons.

"We did have the option of taking her to Medora and doing swimming lessons down there," Cherie said. "But due to my work we weren't able to get the kids down there to go swimming."

The Hendersons, who were visiting from Redding, Calif., took Mackenzie and her brothers camping with them as part of their three-week vacation to see their daughter and her family for the first time in five years.

The Hendersons couldn't believe the town pool was closed; its opening has been sporadic at best in the seven years that Cherie has lived in Belfield.

"It just seems to be an issue with them," Cherie said. "Either they don't have lifeguards -- they didn't have lifeguards one year. ... There's other rumors that there was a pipe that burst."

There's been talk of lessons in Belfield but nothing has come to fruition, leaving Mackenzie and her younger brother without a proper water education.

"It's a nice pool and the community really enjoys it when they have the pool open," Cherie said. "They need to figure it out. ... That pool plays a major part in children's lives during the summer."

The number listed for the Belfield Pool was disconnected when The Press attempted to call on Friday. A message was left with a member of the Belfield Park Board, Missy Schmidt, but was not returned.

The cities nearest Belfield with a pool are Dickinson, 22 miles away, and Medora, 18 miles away.

Several other area towns have municipal swimming pools, many offering swimming lessons.

In New England swimming lessons are offered for levels 1 through 6 for three weeklong sessions, this year all taking place in July, said India Fitterer.

"Most of them are from the New England and Regent area," Fitterer said. "And then a few Dickinson people come."

In Hettinger, which has an indoor pool, lessons were given this summer through the parks department for four two-week sessions, assistant manager Kaylee Zorc said.

Swimming lessons are taught with the American Red Cross curriculum and all instructors pass a water safety course before teaching, manager Tracy Mihn said.

During the school year Hettinger Public School has control of the pool and has swim as part of physical education, but is completely separate from the parks department lessons in the summer, Mihn said.

Hettinger teaches levels 1 through 5 and pre-level courses for 4- and 5-year-olds, which fill up quickly, Zorc said.

Dickinson has year-round lessons at the West River Community Center for ages 6 months and on, said Matt Mack, facilities operations manager for the Community Center. Parent and Me classes are for parents and their children age 6 to 35 months. Once children hit age 3, they can begin the preschool classes.

Classes in Dickinson fill up quickly, Mack said.

"If we could have offered more, we would," Mack said. "We could have the pool closed all day long and offer swim lessons and I know there would be people for it."

Dickinson offers classes for levels 1 to 5, Mack said. In order to participate in leveled classes students must be at least age 6, but move through the classes at their own pace.

"There's some swimmers who might be younger and up in those levels, but it all kind of depends on how well they swim," Mack said. "If they keep getting passed obviously they're going to keep moving up."

There are also private lessons available.

Despite a lack of formal education, Mackenzie was happy to be back in the water on Thursday.

She likes "the temperature, the way you get your hair wet, the way you feel alive," when swimming.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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