It’s not ‘Baywatch’

How my fantasies about lifeguarding collided with hard reality

Photo by Tom Angel

When I got the brilliant idea to be a lifeguard this summer, I pictured myself basking in the glorious summer sun, while my skin turned golden brown and blond highlights in my hair were naturally revealed. I dreamed of meeting hot pool boys to keep me company while I sat high up in the lifeguard stand. I imagined my worries drifting far away as I was enjoying watching the people of Chico frolicking about in the water, trying to beat the horrific summer heat.

“Could you have picked a better summer job?” I asked myself. Getting paid to spend my days in the sun, admiring the beautiful scenery of Chico and meeting the people of this unique little town sounded too good to be true. I knew I would have to watch mischievous children while they played in the water, and occasionally I would need to blow my whistle and yell, “No running,” but what could be so hard about that?

So, with visions of a more bronze me in mind, I signed up for lifeguard training class, applied for a lifeguarding job at Sycamore Pool in Bidwell Park’s One Mile Recreation Area, and bragged to all of my friends about the dream job I was going to land.

When I got the call that I had been hired, I was ecstatic. I jumped up and down like a little girl, squealed with delight and laughed hysterically for a good five minutes. My summer of fun and hot guys was about to begin. I still had to complete the lifeguard training class, but I wasn’t worried. I’m a good swimmer, and CPR didn’t appear too difficult, so what else was there to know?

On the first day training, that question was answered, but not the way I wanted. I hoped to hear that my summer would be comparable to an episode of Baywatch, but as my instructor so harshly put it, “If you think that you’re just gonna sit around all day and get tan and meet attractive people of the opposite sex, you’re wrong.”

Suddenly, a wave of panic came over me. As I listened to the instructor talk about the seriousness of the job and the incredible responsibility that a lifeguard has, I was stricken with fear.

I would be responsible for the lives of others, I realized. I would be the person watching the little kid whose mom was distracted. I would be the one responsible for saving that child from drowning.

Me, saving someone’s life? Someone’s child, mother, father, sister, brother or friend? Could I do that? Would I want me saving my mother’s life? I wasn’t sure. And as I asked myself those questions, I saw nothing fun about being a lifeguard. I no longer cared about my tan or the possibility of meeting cute guys. All I could think about was the fact the peoples’ lives were going to be in my hands, and if I wasn’t prepared, a life could be lost and it would be my fault.

As if that wasn’t enough, I also found out that I would be responsible for resolving situations that didn’t involve the water. I’d have to treat all of the bee stings and bloody noses that inevitably would happen. I may need to calm an angry kid who claims his new shoes were just stolen. I’ll probably have to break up that couple by the tree who are getting just a bit too close. Or tell a bunch of kids that, if they don’t stop running, they’ll be asked to leave. I’ll have authority, and I’ll have no choice but to use it.

After the instructor finished his speech, the first thing the class did was get into the pool and swim 500 yards, or 20 laps. If we failed to go the full distance, our careers as lifeguards would end as fast as they’d begun.

I swam my little heart out. Twenty strenuous laps later and after swallowing my fair share of chlorinated water, it was finally over. I wondered what else I was in for.

During the remainder of that day and in the intense days to come, I learned, essentially, how to save someone’s life.

The class practiced drill after drill instructing us on how to enter the water with our rescue tubes and the different types of rescues to be performed in different situations. We practiced rescuing classmates who pretended to be drowning. We spent eight hours practicing CPR. We practiced, time and time again, the right way to rescue someone who has suffered a head or spinal injury. We practiced swimming pretend victims to the side of the pool and getting them out of the water.

I went home each day feeling as if all of my energy had been sucked out of me by some parasite. These drills were so incredibly draining; they were so physically tough. And the fact that I knew they were preparing me for a real emergency took a toll on my mental strength, as well. Each time I made a pretend rescue, I couldn’t help thinking that one day I might not be pretending.

The most grueling drill came at the end of the training. We had to jump into the pool with our rescue tubes, swim as fast as we could to a pretend victim, swim the victim to the deep end of the pool, put him or her on a backboard, and lift him out of the water. Then we had to simulate doing CPR.

By the time I had finished that drill, I was gasping for air. I felt like I had just run a marathon. The drill is 10 times harder than it sounds.

I now know that lifeguards are just what the title implies: They guard the lives of the public. The responsibility of being a lifeguard is enormous.

Though my visions of a Baywatch summer have vanished, I am left with the pride of knowing that, if the day should come, God forbid, when I have to save a life, I am capable of doing so. And although I am terrified of making use of my life-saving skills, knowing I can protect the public from harm means far more than any cute guy I may meet or the tan that I so foolishly thought would be the highlight of my summer as a lifeguard.