Risking her life to pull a drowning man from the bottom of the ocean has won a bravery award for a Paraparaumu woman.

Jacinta Rangi still can't believe the set of circumstances that saved the man's life. She was just happy to learn he had survived.

Rangi was holidaying in the Coromandel and spent the day sunbathing at Cooks Beach. Her two sons Sam, 14, and Alex, 12, were off doing their own thing, but suggested she should go and check out a cave they found round the bay.

As an amateur photographer with a penchant for sunsets, she wrapped the camera in a plastic bag and went for a walk.

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It was late in the afternoon and low tide when she ventured out to get some shots of the cave.

"The boys said it was really cool and that I should have a look," she said.

While now some distance away from other beach-goers, she looked up to see a man jump from a cliff into the water.

"I saw him hit the water. He landed flat on his back and wasn't moving," she said.

"He had jumped from a pretty decent height."

Rangi started running straight toward the man, who was floating still on the surface. The water quickly became too deep to run, so she began to swim towards him, careful not to take her eyes off the floating man, who was some 50m away.

"I was swimming with my head above the water because I thought if he goes under I might not be able to see him," she said.

"You could tell he was unconscious. Then his body rolled over and he just sank. Because he was still breathing, he had breathed in salt water, and just sank."

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Rangi swam to where she thought the man had gone down, took a deep breath, and dove down. She was lucky to locate him on the ocean floor. Somehow, she managed to grab him, and headed for the surface.

"It was totally random. It was like something you see in the movies. You think it would never happen to you," she said.

"I though 'this isn't happening'. It was all very surreal."

It was at that moment she remembered surf lifesaving techniques was taught at primary school, and clutching the man under the chin, she somehow managed to bring him to shore.

"I was banging on his chest while I was swimming saying 'c'mon take a breath, take a breath' and to stimulate his breathing," she said.

"He was a lot bigger than me. I think it was really lucky that I was training for the Kāpiti triathlon at the time so had been doing a lot of swimming and running and cycling and was fit."

Jacinta Rangi
Jacinta Rangi

When they finally arrived onshore she began to perform resuscitation techniques. He began to cough and foam at the mouth but was still unconscious.

Rangi was mindful that the man might have broken his neck on impact, so was careful not to move his head. She used a nearby boogie board to drag him from the surf.

By this time her two sons had alerted surf lifesaving officials and emergency services and they cleared the beach for the helicopter, which arrived 10 minutes later and flew the man to Auckland City Hospital.

"The boys did well in helping me," she said.

One of the first responders to the scene was Murray Holt, who was also a paramedic and was some 7km away at Hahei. He said he had never seen anything quite like it in 27 years of service.

"I was gobsmacked," he said.

"He was not a small guy. He was unconscious and would have been a dead weight. Somehow she managed to pull him from the ocean floor and managed to keep his head above water and get him back to shore."

"I looked at him and thought 'how has she done this'."

"When I arrived he was critical and it was pretty clear that had she not done what she did he would have died in the water."

Rangi herself was an ambulance officer with more than 25 years experience who had served at the Levin branch of St John's since 2008.

So while she was no stranger to saving lives during the course of her job, she never expected to be able to help someone while on holiday. It was ironic then that she should receive recognition for something that she essentially did as a matter of course.

"You don't get a lot of praise during the day because it's your job," she said.

Rangi recently received a CEO Commendation award from St John's in recognition of her bravery that day.

"I was just relieved to learn he had survived. I don't even know his name."

"Looking back, it was just me and him. The nearest person was 50m away. I keep thinking about it. He would have been dead if I didn't go for a walk."

St John's communications advisor Ngaire Jones said Rangi was deserved of the award.

"There is no doubt that her courageous actions when off duty saved this man's life," she said.

Rangi and her two boys go to a different holiday destination each year. They weren't sure yet where they were going this summer.