A teenager spots a five-year-old flailing in deep water and springs into action, swimming to the girl, whose eyes are wide with terror, and then pulls the child to safety. Is this a scene from Ronald Reagan’s biography? Or, a page from a superhero comic book?
No, it’s just another day at the Park District of Forest Park’s pool. Around 300 of these incidents happened last year, and the pool’s 80 lifeguards have already racked up nearly 50 “saves,” as they’re called, this year.
The lifeguards are young, ranging in age from 16 to 26, and are about equally divided in terms of gender. Thirty-one are lifeguarding for the first time.
Valerie Correa, who is 18 and in her second year of guarding, remembered her first save: “I was nervous because I’d never been a lifeguard before. In my first days I was freaking out and looking at the water like crazy. One day I was working at the bottom of the slide, and a little boy starts drowning. I thought, ‘Oh my God, is he drowning?’ and then [I realized] ‘Yeah, he is,’ soI jumped in and picked him up.”
Nineteen-year-old Kevin Roman, a sophomore lifeguard, was equally flustered about making saves when he was a rookie. “I was paranoid and ready to jump in the water at the slightest sign of struggle,” he said. As it turned out, Roman’s first save mission involved simply giving a hand to a girl who was reaching for help.
Joe Crawford is in his third year of lifeguarding. The 18-year-old said his first save was “not anything special.” He saw a child struggling in the water at the bottom of the slide, blew his whistle, as he was trained to do, jumped in, and grabbed him. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” Crawford said. “Every day there’s one or two there at the slide.”
Laughter filled the poolside office as the young adults told stories about their first saves – they playfully teased, cracked jokes and dropped nicknames; there was a definite sense of camaraderie.
Pool Manager Casey Close told the story of a woman who came into the guard office asking if there was a lost and found. Close pointed to a bin, and the woman started throwing towels out of the container and screaming, “My baby! My baby!”
“Your baby’s towel?” Close responded.
“No, my baby’s in the lost and found!” cried the distraught mother.
“She was from another country,” Close concluded. “I don’t think she understood.”
All kidding aside, though, there is serious sense of responsibility that is shared by all who work at the pool. Close, who has been there for 11 years, trains all the guards. To qualify, they must be able to swim 300 yards, retrieve a 10-pound block from the bottom of the pool and then swim with it for another 25 yards.
Abby Ortiz, a 20-year-old veteran with several years of experience, added that all the guards must attend once-weekly in-service training sessions where they review and practice their training in rescue, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), automated external defibrillation (AED) and first aid.
Matt Klich is an 18-year-old who has been lifeguarding for five years and he takes his job very seriously. He recalled a time when a few other guards weren’t paying attention because they were rotating; this required him to run down the stairs of the drop slide and save a child who was struggling. “My emotion was pretty cool,” he recalled, “but the fact that some guards weren’t paying attention kind of like got me mad a little bit.”
While most of the saves are not very dramatic, some of the victims do wind up going to the hospital. Yasmin Gonzalez remembered a case last year when a guy went off the diving board and blew his knee out. The guards had to use the spinal injury board to get him out of the water because he couldn’t even walk. They guy ended up in the hospital.
Bret Deyo, who is 19, and has been lifeguarding for five years, said that at times he has had to reprimand parents twice his age. He spoke about a certain “pool rat” whose mother was chronically inattentive whenever they were at the pool. The kid walked into water that was too deep for him and Deyo had to save him. “The mother got mad at the kid, and I got mad at the mother,” he said, noting that he advised her to pay attention to her son.
When asked if, between adrenalin-pumping saves, lifeguarding can get boring, second-year guard Patsy Dunaway said that guards rotate positions every 15 minutes to help maintain focus.
“When I’m watching kids in the water I’m still focused,” she said. “I’m looking for weak swimmers, watching for parents not paying attention to kids and dealing with people who are rough housing.”
That’s all in a day’s work.