Lifeguarding: The Not So Perfect Job

To a sixteen-year-old competitive swimmer, what’s more ideal than scoring a job as a lifeguard?  You get paid twelve dollars an hour to sit in the sun and blow a whistle at anyone who dare disobey the pool rules, turning golden brown in the process. I mean, who else gets off of work at the mere sound of thunder?

bloggeenThis was how I imagined my lifeguarding career as I entered a training class my junior year of high school.  I’d be a tan, authoritative hero, admired by children and respected by adults.  If I had taken a second to think logically about my fantasy, I would have realized that I was pale and passive; impatient with children and shy around adults.

My self-indulgent fantasy began to crumble while learning to backboard.  If a person has a spinal injury, two

lifeguards have to strap them to a special board before pulling them from the pool. It’s a skill that requires precession and close attention to detail.

Now I admit, I wasn’t being a model student when I learned this life saving skill.  I was in a class with a lot of friends, and I assumed the whole year would be a cakewalk considering my swim coach was the instructor.  I was also one of the strongest swimmers in the class, which fed my know-it-all attitude.

My turn to practice the skill came around.  I waited for someone to volunteer as the victim; I would have to get this person onto the board, strap them in, and haul them from the pool.  I watched as Eric – the biggest kid in class – volunteered.  He surpassed the other students in both size and in the amount of body hair he possessed. I couldn’t help but sigh as I began the procedure on this human bear.

Getting him onto the backboard and strapping him in was the easy part for my partner and I.  Pulling him out was a different story entirely.  My job was to get out of the pool and keep the backboard steady while my partner scrambled out to help me pull.  As my partner was doing just that, my attention wavered; I lost my grip on the backboard.  Eric and the board slid in slow motion off of the gutter, instantly sinking in the water. Instead of jumping in right away to save my helpless friend I stared in horror – a response that is frowned upon for an up and coming lifeguard.  He looked up at me, continuing his painfully slow descent to the bottom.bloggggeen

My coach, a no nonsense woman who wasn’t one to hold her tongue, shouted an explicative that snapped me out of the staring contest going on between Eric and I.  I jumped into the pool with my partner and we dragged him from the bottom. After this startling but ultimately harmless mistake, I started to feel apprehensive about my future as a lifeguard.

Once certified, I began teaching swim lessons at the local YWCA.  Although I found small children to be exasperating, I tried to stay positive, convincing myself that forcing kids to get in a freezing pool and flail around for thirty minutes would be fun. It wasn’t even ten minutes into my first lesson when I realized it was not.

Trying to teach ten miserable children to swim was bad enough, but as an added bonus their parents got to watch my every move from the bleachers. Comments like, “watch Stacey, she sinks like a rock,” rained angrily down on me as I attempted to teach their apathetic children.  One of my students was so stubborn, he refused to move his body.  I’d hold him around the middle and beg him to move his arms, or kick his feet.  He’d lay face first in the water, as limp as a corpse, and wait for me to drag his body around the shallow end.

“Come on, just try moving your arms” I’d coax to no avail.  Once I was finished taking him for a drag he’d start vigorously picking his nose, disinterested in everything around him.  Needless to say I left the world of teaching soon after I entered it.

I found a job at an outdoor pool that belonged to an apartment complex; I was optimistic, considering the job description didn’t include swim lessons. The job was different, but not better.  Sometimes I would open up the pool in the morning to find condoms strewn across the deck, beer bottles lying around, and the garbage cans tipped over.  Summer camp let out every day at three, and all of the children would come straight to the pool, insisting on doing back flips, playing chicken, and running on the deck. No one bothered to set up a solid set of rules for the pool. Anything was allowed; a nerve-racking concept for someone trying to make sure everyone’s skulls stayed intact.

On weekends, a group of guys a few years older than me would show up to the pool an hour before closing time. Getting them to leave was never an easy task. “Come on, we’re trying to have a pool party! You can have a beer if you stay.” They would flash a twenty my way and wink as they showed me their packs of beer. I think that an underage lifeguard consuming alcohol while on the job is probably a liability.

Getting verbally assaulted by an older man was the last straw. after denying his generous date offer, which consisted of,“Yo, you should meet me at my car after work,” he told me that I must be a lesbian. His grey eyes flashed expectantly, assuring me, “its okay girl, I’m into that.”  I was not into that.

I leave my whistle and red suit at home when I go to the pool now, instead I bring SPF 50 and some reading material.  I never became the revered, bronzed goddess that I imagined myself to be, but when I sit poolside, fair skin freckling in the sun with a book in my lap, I couldn’t imagine having it any other way.


My Future in Swimming

Working out alone is not an easy task.  During swim season I had plenty of motivation to get up at ungodly hours, swim for more hours than I slept, and spend every waking moment at a pool or thinking about going to the pool.  My motivation was our championship meet in February; it’s a goal that would remind me to push myself when I was feeling lazy.


the YMCA pool I swim at

Now that I don’t have teammates to swim with, a coach to push me, or a championship meet to look forward to, staying fit in the pool is going to be difficult.  My future in swimming is going to be different than what I’m used to.  Two-a-day practices, training trips, and swim meets are a thing of the past.  Once I’m home from college I’ll get a pool membership at the YMCA and begin my quest of trying to stay in shape.

Working out at a local pool is completely different from being on a team.  I spent a lot of days last summer at the YMCA pool trying to get in shape before the school year started.  The first struggle of swimming at a local pool is trying to find a quiet lane to swim in.  I quickly learned that going to the pool between 5pm and 730 was not ideal, but It was one of the only times I could go.  Usually only two people fit in each lane if they split it down the middle. Because it’s a six lane pool, that means that only twelve people get to swim at a time.  I’ve walked onto the pool deck many times to see people hovering besides the pool like vultures, waiting for their chance to sneak in and get a spot to swim.

On a swim team, you practice next to people who have similar swimming abilities as you.  At the YMCA, that’s not always the case.  While some people are strong swimmers, other older people can barley swim at all.  I often find myself wondering if I’ll have to put my lifeguarding skills to the test and fish some of these kind, but inept people from the pool. I swam in a lane with an older man one day who I was sure was going to drown.  As I swam back and Imageforth in the lane he floated almost motionless in the middle of the pool, everything but his eyes and part of his nose were submerged. Part of me thought that he might have already drowned and no one had noticed.  Luckily he made it to the other side of the pool after a long while and a lot of discrete, almost nonexistent doggy paddles.

While many of the pool patrons are extremely nice and easy to talk to, there are a few older, grumpier people who resent anyone who swims near them.  I glided into the wall as I finished a kicking set one day and noticed a woman glaring at me.

“Young lady you’re splashing me, do you think you could relax, you’re kicking up too much water,” she said, scowling in her off white swim cap. I wanted to tell her that I pay just as much as she does for a membership, and I could make a goddamn tidal wave of splashing if I felt like it.  Instead of starting a splash war with the woman I moved over one lane to make everyone happy.

The nice people outweigh the crotchety ones though.  Many people want tips for swimming, and like to ask questions about the gear I use, or my stroke techniques.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if I should start teaching swim lessons for the elderly.  My favorite question received at the local pool was from a sweet older woman in a bright blue suit.

“Did you go to the Olympic trials this year honey? The Olympics are coming up, are you training?”  As much as I would have loved to keep the reputation of Olympic swimmer, I laughed and informed her that I would be more likely to get struck by lightning than go to the Olympics.

Training at the YMCA instead of with a team is definitely going to be something I need to get used to.  Learning to push myself without a coach or teammates around will be tough, but I know I’ll learn to enjoy it.  After a while I’ll probably look back at the 5 AM practices, weekend long swim meets, and grueling training trips and be overjoyed that I’m a retired swimmer.

White Bread: an Atypical Swimmer

The quintessential swimmer: a tall, deeply tanned person with a lean, muscular build.   When I think of the typical swimmer, images of Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps come to Imagemind. They have torso’s that are impossibly long and muscled, arm spans that would rival the wingspan of a small pterodactyl, and skin that has been tanned from hours spent in outdoor pools. (Although attractive and extremely talented, it’s sad to note that both Michael and Ryan have trouble stringing together sentences that contain more than three words – I guess you can’t have it all.)

Now picture a group of ideal swimmers, tanned children ranging in age from ten to eighteen.  They stand in front of an outdoor pool at six in the morning, most of them looking miserable as steam rises off of the frigid water.  The older kids are tall, but almost everyone is tanned, muscled, and wearing bright suits that contrast their dark skin.  Everyone but me.

I am in no way the quintessential swimmer.  I never have been, and unless I get a spray tan, a personal trainer, and grow a foot I never will be. I’m 5’4”, extremely pale, and would not call my physic “lean” or “muscular”.  I’ve always stuck out like a sore thumb against the other swimmers.  I have skin so white that it’s always been easy for my mother to pick me out of the pack of dark swimmers.

When I was younger I was self conscious about being so pale.  I would get called “Casper” or “albino”, and although I tried to play it off it definitely hurt my already shaky seventh grade ego.  At lunch one day my best friend was teasing me and I was going along with it.  We started naming off all of the things that I was whiter than.  Whiter than an egg.  Whiter than the walls.  Whiter than the clouds.  We giggled about each new addition.  You know, you’re even whiter than white bread! We laughed hard at that one.  After that day my friend started calling me “white bread” and got all of our friends to play along too.  I didn’t like it at first, but after a while I realized there was no sense in fighting it.  I adopted the

cooking in a custom made "White Bread Wonder Swimmer" suit.  Definitely going to regret posting this photo.

cooking in a custom made “White Bread Wonder Swimmer” suit. Definitely going to regret posting this photo.

nickname “white bread” and actually began to enjoy the name.  I incorporated it into email addresses, and doodled it across my homework.  Walking through the bread section of the supermarket began to get confusing – I usually threw a confused look at anyone talking about white bread.

My coaches found out about the nickname and loved it.  They stopped calling me Emily, and began to call me White Bread.  Throughout the five years I spent on my club team, I was known as White Bread to my coaches and team mates.  A lot of the younger swimmers didn’t even know my real name.  My coaches began naming my whole family after bread products.  My parents became known as “Mama Bread” and “Papa Bread”, my two sisters became “Mini Loaf” and “Buttered Roll”, and the family minivan was known as “The Bread Mobile”.

I’m still known as White Bread by most of my coaches.  The nickname followed me to college; my college coach and teammates picked up the name when I was a freshman. My nickname was even honored at our championship meet this year.  It was written on our senior banner that hung behind the pool.  I may not look like the typical swimmer, but that has never stopped me from having a good time on deck. Instead of feeling self conscious about looking different than other swimmers, I was able to embrace it and make fun of myself.  Image

Open Water

I love the water.  That should seem like an obvious statement coming from someone who spent twenty or more hours a week submerged in a pool for five months straight, but it’s not always the case.  A lot of swimmers get so tired of being in the water during season that theImage refuse to swim – even just for fun – once season ends.  For me it’s the opposite.  I’m usually the only one who gets in the pool during the summer when my family goes on vacation.  While they tan or read on the deck I’ll be floating, diving, and splashing around in the pool by myself.  At our family friend’s Memorial Day party you can usually find me in their pool, surrounded by children while the adults drink cocktails and nibble on appetizers.  When it comes to swimming in pools I’m like a big kid, playing in the water until my fingers shrivel into prunes and I force myself to warm up and dry off in the sun.

It would seem natural that someone who loves water so much would be excited to swim in open water such as an ocean or lake.  For me, this is not true.  I like the idea of swimming in open water; you have more space, fresh air, and the sun shining down on you.  Each time I go to the ocean or a lake I really try to enjoy swimming there, making myself at least get in and paddle around a bit.  I never enjoy it though, and always find myself getting out of the water with urgency once I reach shore.

Swimming in a pool is predictable.  You can see the bottom clearly, and there generally aren’t creatures swimminggggresiding underneath the water.  I have an overactive imagination to begin with, so swimming in a lake really makes me over think things.  As soon as I push off of the sand I start thinking about all the wildlife watching me from their hiding places in the murk.  This is a totally paranoid thought, and my family tells me that any animals near me are probably more scared of me than I am of them, but I still can’t shake the creepy feeling.

It was one of the times I was trying to enjoy swimming in a lake when my paranoia actually turned out to be true.  I was fairly relaxed as I floated around  close to the rocks we had set up camp.  Most of my family was relaxing on shore and talking while some of us were in the water.  One moment we were all relaxing, and in the next instant everyone on the rocks was standing and pointing to a spot close to where I was swimming.

“Holy crap, look at that turtle!” My dad said from his spot of safety on land.  As soon as the words left his mouth I could feel myself start to panic.  Our family friend who was closer to the rocks quickly scrambled out of the water.  I felt as if Jaws himself was chasing me down, ready to come flying out of the water and start ripping me to shreds.  I swam around the rocks towards a place where I could climb to shore, making a wide arc around the last place the turtle was spotted.  I couldn’t bring myself to look for it; I kept my eyes pointed towards land as I swam the last few feet in.  I made it to safety with a sigh of relief, and by the time I stood up and looked out across the water the turtle was nowhere to be seen.

Although I love going to oceans and lakes, I now tend to enjoy them from my spot on land, and I leave the swimming for pools.


Championship Swim Meets: What You Don’t Know

Unless there’s a summer Olympics going on, swimming is generally not a popular sport to watch.  People don’t head over to their friend’s house with a six pack to watch “the meet”, and you wouldn’t normally overhear people having heated discussions over college swimming.  Many people don’t know a lot of the basics about swimming unless they’re part of the swimming world.  Even if you’re involved in swimming, it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy Imagewatching a swim meet the way you enjoy watching the super bowl.   I don’t think anyone has ever been excited to watch the mile, a 66 lap race that takes participants anywhere from sixteen to twenty minutes to complete.  Most people know the basics, but a lot of people don’t know some of the quirky things swimmers do to prepare for a championship meet.  I’ve made a list of three things swimmers do in preparation for championship meets that might surprise the average, non –swimmer.

3.  Taper.  “Taper” is defined as a “gradual decrease”.  In the swimming world, “Taper” refers to the period of time before a championship meet when the amount of work at practice decreases.  We go from a period of high intensity and high yardage, to a period where the yardage in practice decreases so muscles get a chance to rebuild.  Taper is all about resting, so it’s the one time of year when swimmers get to be lazy.  I might take the elevator instead of the stairs, or drive somewhere instead of walking. While carrying in equipment from my car one day, I joked to my teammates, saying “well, this is definitely going to blow my taper!”  While it is important to rest your body during taper, swimmers usually take it to a whole new level.  I know I’ve refused to get off the couch, out of my bed, or even leave the house, all in the name of taper.

2. Technical Suits.  Anyone who’s watched the Olympics recently have seen technical suits.  Strict regulations make it so that men’s and women’s technical suits have to end at the knees.  In the Beijing Olympics, technical suits were full body, squeezing swimmers all the way down to their ankles.  For our championship meet, most swimmers wear knee suits.  We order the suits smaller than we usually would because we want them to compress ourImage bodies, making us faster in the water. The real fun starts when we try to put these tiny suits on before the meet.  It usually involves many frustrated minutes in the locker-room, shimmying and pulling, trying to get the impossibly small suits over our bodies so that they cover everything they’re supposed to.  Many frustrated sighs and curses can be heard coming from the locker rooms.  These suits are also not flattering in any way. They pinch and dig into people who have absolutely no body fat, so you can only imagine the strange roll’s and creases the suits create on a person of average size.

1. Shaving. Shaving is a huge part of preparing for a championship meet.  Experts think that completely shaving down reduces resistance and make swimmers faster in the water. Guys have to shave every inch of their bodies for the meet. They’re also encouraged to shave their heads. To make the process weirder than it already is, guys sometimes bleach their hair, dye it fun colors, and shave interesting patterns into it. (I’ve seen Mohawks, checkerboard hair, the “old man” cut, and some other, less appropriate styles.)  The boys get the pleasure of looking like a bunch of strange, bald freaks, but girls who swim have their own problems as well.  Starting a few months before a championship meet the girls aren’t allowed to shave their legs.  That’s right.  Our coach forbids leg Imageshaving until we arrive at our championship meet.  The idea is when you finally shave your legs after months of not shaving, you’ll be a little bit faster in the water.  Does leg hair really make that much of a difference? Personally, I think it’s more of a mental thing.  When you finally shave after months of not shaving, you feel a lot faster in the water, which boosts your confidence.  We complain about our legs all season, dreaming of being able to shave, comparing our leg hair, and picking out outfits that hide our man legs.  Guys have to go bald at the end of the season, but the girls have to stay hairy all season long.

Goal Setting

I contemplated the worksheet sitting on my desk, “Goals” was written across the top of the page in thick black print.  My coach had given the sheets out and they were due at practice that night.  Most of the questions had to do with swimming, “what are your goal times for each event?” or “what do you hope to fix about your stroke?”  I filled the questions out easily, making goals for myself without thinking twice.  The last question on the page caught me off guard, and I wasn’t sure how to answer it. “What are three goals for yourself that don’t have to do with swimming?”  I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish when it came to times for my events, but I was stumped when it came to making goals for life in general.

I decided on “receive all A’s and B’s” for my first goal, a generic answer that I’m sure everyone wrote down.  I was a junior in high school and hadn’t gotten my license yet, so “pass my driving test” was the next thing scrawled on the page.  I sat there for a while but couldn’t think of a third goal. Why are they having us make life goals anyways I thought, getting annoyed with the blank spot on my worksheet.  I got fed up with staring at the paper and asked my mom what she thought the third answer should be.

“Maybe something to do with going away to college?” she suggested.  I wasn’t going to college for another two years, but why not get started early.

“Should I learn how to cook before college? Maybe that should be my goal,” I responded after thinking about it for a while.  It was something to fill up the empty spot on the page, so I wrote “Learn how to cook” in the blank space provided, thinking it would amount to nothing.

Out of all the goals written on my sheet my coaches loved the last one.

“We can’t study with you, or help you learn how to drive, but we’re going to teach you to cook.”  I laughed it off, thinking they were kidding. It’s not like they can come home with me and hang out in my kitchen I thought to myself.  The next day I was given my first food assignment.

“First, I want you to make us some mac and cheese,” my coach John said after practice.  He wanted me to bring it in on nomnomnomFriday so the coaches would be able to taste my creation.  My mac and cheese was the first of many dishes I brought to the pool that year.  At first I only cooked small portions for my coaches, but as the year progressed I’d bring huge amounts of food for the thirty or so swimmers at practice.  They would try out my dishes and tell me if they liked it or not, giving me suggestions like “needs more salt,” or “you overcooked the pasta.”  With each passing week I got a new recipe to try out.  I made chili near Christmas time, and boneless buffalo bites on Good Friday.  Risotto that took hours to make, burgers thrown on the grill right before practice, and taco’s with all of the fixings.

Everyone looked forward to Fridays at the pool; not many people wanted to skip out on practice those days. We’d crowd around the small table on the pool deck, holding paper plates and waiting for a scoop of mac and cheese or some pieces of chicken.  By the end of the year I had successfully made many dishes. That year I didn’t get my license or receive all A’s and B’s, (math prevented me from that) but I was proud to say that I learned to cook.


Tomorrow around ten in the morning I’ll get on a bus with the Oswego swim team and leave for our championship meet, SUNYACS.  We started training on October 1st for this meet, and this is where all of our hard work pays off.  I’m a senior, so this is my fourth and final championships with my team, meaning that after this weekend I’ll be done with competitive swimming.

Done.  That word holds so much finality. I still can’t grasp the concept of being completely done with competitive swimming.  I’ve been trying to understand it all season long.  The feeling is so surreal though, and it hasn’t hit me yet. To try and understand it, Adam, a fellow senior teammate has been announcing our “lasts” all season long.  As in, “hey, this is our last Halloween practice,” or “this is our last dual meet!”  There are two other seniors on the team besides me, and

the senior lap

the senior lap

we’ve made a joke out of it, announcing our last everything.  Like, “This is our last first Thursday practice of the year,” or “hey everyone, this is our sixth to last bus ride with the team!”  As much as we joke, we’ve shared some important “lasts” this season.

We swam our last lap together on our Florida training trip.  Every year, at the last practice in Florida the seniors complete what we call, “the senior lap”.  The team lines up on opposite sides of the lane, and the seniors start from the other end of the pool.  We swim a final lap, reaching the other side of the pool as our teammates cheer us on. It was a bittersweet feeling to take one last stroke into the wall, knowing I’d never swim on a training trip again.  We’ve spent so much time in that pool over the years, and I’ve worked harder in that pool than I’ve worked anywhere else.  Although it’s a place I dreaded going to, it’s also a familiar place.  It’s sad to think that next year I won’t be joining the team, swimming hard in sets, helping tow tarps across the pool after practice, and running to the locker rooms with everyone through the chilly night air.

We’ve also survived our final twenty four hour bus ride.  That’s right, twenty four hours. When I first joined the team I was excited to finally fly for the first time, thinking that we’d be taking a plane down to Florida.  I couldn’t have been charter_bus_imore wrong.  Each year we take a bus straight to Florida, only stopping for meals and to exchange one bus driver for another.  We sleep curled up in our bus seats, or sprawled out on the floor of the bus, trying to doze as much as we can. I dreaded these bus rides every year, but I also ended up bonding with my team and having fun on these trips.  If I add up all of the time I’ve spent on buses in the four years I’ve been on the team, it comes out to over two weeks.  More than fourteen days of my life have been spent on a bus, cruising around New York and down to Florida.  It seems like a ridiculous amount of time, but still, it’s something the Oswego swim team has gone through together, and we’ve become that much closer because of it.

This weekend I have my last championship meet with Oswego.  I’m confident in my team, and I know we’ll perform to the best of our abilities.  I’m excited for all of the fast swimming that’s going to happen, and I’m excited to spend this last weekend with my team mates.  Many times over the past four years I’ve thought of this very moment, wishing for swimming to be over.  During hard practices, or when my alarm was ringing at five in the morning, I’d think I can’t wait until I never have to do this again. That moment is finally here, and I don’t know if I want swimming to be over yet.  I don’t really have a choice , so all I can do is savor every moment I spend with my team mates, swimming fast, cheering hard, and enjoying their company until the weekend is over, when I’ll be done.


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