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The Lifeguard

Being a lifeguard is one great career.

It was the summer of ‘66 my first open water lifeguard job at Holiday Home Camp on the beautiful shores of Lake Geneva which lead to a career that lasted for more than 35 years. Of course being a lifeguard had it’s privileges. Every lifeguard from the beginning of time it seems always had a girl. I was no different, especially in the summer of 1966. It was this particular summer that defined the character I was to become. To really understand the career choice I made is to look back in history to how lifeguards have evolved through the years.  

When we talk of the evolution of Lifeguards we have to go back to the turn of the 20th century where resorts in places like Atlantic City and New Jersey were becoming mecas for tourists and beach goers. As more people flocked to the beaches so did the number of incidences of water related accidents and many people drowned. By the early1900s more that 9,000 people drowned each year in the United States. It was becoming apparent that in order to prevent and reduce the number of deaths and water related accidents began the movement to train individuals to guard against accidental drowning. Hence, the term lifeguard was and still is associated with those specifically trained in water rescue. One of the first was Duke Kahanamoku, who was one of Hawaii’s first original watermen, that introduced the rescue board between 1910 and 1915. It was Captain Harry Sheffield of South Africa who is credited with developing the first rescue float, that by the way a variation of the original is still used today.  

But, it was the YMCA who already had introduce progressive swim guidelines for learning how to swim that developed the National Lifesaving Service back in 1912. This was followed by the Red Cross in 1914. Both organizations now developed their own training programs specifically designed to train individuals not only to teach swimming but to be better equipped to render assistance and perform water rescues. In order to become a lifeguard one had to be a very proficient swimmer to begin with, but was also trained in lifesaving techniques that involved resuscitation. These trained individuals or lifeguards were now responsible for supervising beach and swimming pool facilities and activities all across the US. 

In the beginning the lifeguard training programs primarily emphasized personal water safety: how to prevent drowning’s and protect oneself in emergencies. Non swimming rescue methods, such as throwing a rope or a floating object to the person in the water, were encouraged. Lifeguards considered swimming rescues a last resort due to the hazard presented by a panicked swimmer in the water. Up until the mid 1970’s lifeguard training whether it was Red Cross or YMCA the rigors of qualifying just to be accepted to partake in classes to become certified as a Lifeguard were very intense. I remember the swim test just to qualify for the class back in the early 1960’s. the swim check was almost too difficult. Luckily though I was a member of the swim team other wise I would have never passed gaining entrance into the program. What we endured for weeks of intensive training where we had to perform water rescues in any number of circumstances without any floatation devises using just our cunning and strength was a miracle that none of us trainees never became victims ourselves. 

It was this training back then that prepared me for a career not only for swimming pool supervision but for open water rescues as well. When I look at a typical pool lifeguard today around the US I am amazed at the lack of swimming proficiency that most of today’s pool  lifeguards have. But then I look at the lifeguards say, in Australia where their beach guards are literally amazing in their quick response to so many contingencies whether people are caught in rip tides or exposed to too much sun all highlight the rigorous training that they continue to go through. 

But, back in the summer of ‘66 my tenure as the lifeguard was pretty much event free thanks to my trusty whistle and quick assessment of people entering in and out of the water. Again, it was the training I received back then that prepared me for the job at hand that enable me to have a safe and almost event free summer. I was never a real macho type but as a lifeguard did offer some rewards. People looked up to the lifeguard for they are the ones that are there to safeguard their safety while at a waterfront or swimming pool. Again, I was no different.  

It was during that summer that I realized my calling so of speaking with what I was destined to do. Ever since my father took me to the old Irving Park Y back when I was little exposed me to the wonderful world of aquatics. Later, I developed a true awareness and proficiency that enabled be to thrive in an environment when others would not. Through-out the years many new innovations and techniques have contributed to saving more lives have come along. We always had to go through rigorous training to keep fit and to update on the latest techniques for rescue and resuscitation. Always in the back of our mind was, will I be really tested when a real emergency happens? I have seen it happen on several occasions when a fellow lifeguard just freezes at the precise moment he should have jumped to action. Even with all that training there are those who just can’t handle a real live and death situation when it actually occurs. It happens all the time. 

As the years few by I was continually amazed at the technology being introduced for lifesaving. What we used and were trained in back in the 60’s by the 90’s was obsolete and deemed unreliable. And just like that the standards for qualifying to become lifeguards today are a far cry to what we had to do just to get into the training class. But, as always the Boy Scout motto ” Be prepared” was the standard rule of thumb back then as it is now. The devises like the rescue float has been redesigned so the every lifeguard today is assigned one to use just in case they were called into action. 

There is no greater calling in life than the preparedness to safeguard the sanctity of life. If you are a very proficient swimmer to begin with just maybe your calling too is to become a lifeguard. Whether you choose the beaches or the pool both are distinctly different in the training for water rescue as they are similar in the one common denominator. And, that is in your ability to master swimming rescues in intense situations. For me a career of a lifetime was very rewarding to say the least.

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