"It's been my intended summer career path ever since I've since I was five," says Sarah Lindstrom, 18, a West High grad finishing up her first year at UW-Madison. "I grew up at Shorewood Pool, and the swimming community has had a large impact on my life. I always knew I wanted to work there."
Many teens spend their summers babysitting, scooping ice cream and folding sweaters at the mall. But for those drawn to the water, there are few seasonal work opportunities that can top being a lifeguard. Contrary to Baywatch stereotypes, though, working as a guard requires a whole lot more than just working on a tan.
"The path toward guarding is pretty laid out," Lindstrom says. "I applied to be a checker/concessions person the summer I was going into tenth grade." She says she learned a lot in the entry-level position, but little of it had to do with the actual pool. "I cleaned a lot of bathrooms, which can get surprisingly gross. And I also learned how to make an excellent grilled cheese sandwich. I got good at making change quickly. Little kids always wanted to know how many Lemonheads they could get for $5."
Lindstrom viewed her two first summers working at Shorewood as putting in her time in hopes of becoming a lifeguard as soon as she was old enough. In the winter of eleventh grade, she enrolled in a Red Cross Lifeguarding/CPR certification class at the Y.
According to Nicole Champlin, the aquatic director at the YMCA of Dane County West Branch, kids wishing to get certified must be 15 years old by the last day of the course, but most enrollees are 16 and up. "Some of the kids who take the course will say, 'My mom says I need to get a job,' but far more tell me they've always loved swimming, maybe even have been on swim team. They have a real passion for the water."
At the West Y (though other local YMCAs, MATC, UW-Madison and high schools also offer certification) the process typically takes around 30-40 hours depending on how many students are registered. The course is usually offered two to three times a year over two weekends. All of the basics of lifesaving are covered, including how to spot and rescue a distressed swimmer, an active drowning victim, and an unconscious swimmer below the water surface. Those taking the class also learn how to scan (the visual technique for actively observing people in the water), backboard a victim, and suction an airway, as well as perform CPR. To get a beach certification takes another six hours of training.
Brad Weisinger, the Madison parks facility manager who oversees all the guards at both the Goodman Pool and the public beaches, says it takes more than just a certification to become one of the 120-130 guards he hires every season. "I really work on getting to know my guards as people. I need to trust them. I look for leadership qualities when I'm hiring."
To Weisinger, becoming a successful lifeguard doesn't just mean being a strong swimmer. "I look for strong-minded people," he says.
Johanna Taylor is one of those people. Now 23, Taylor took her lifeguarding certification course for physical education credit while still at Memorial High School. She was employed at Goodman Pool the day it opened to the public in 2006 and has spent her summers guarding for the Madison Parks ever since.
"I've had six rescues at Goodman where I've needed to go in the water," Taylor says. "Some have been in the deep end by the diving board and some in the four- and five-foot area with smaller kids." Over the years, she's also dealt with numerous other first aid issues like bee stings, gutter gashes and bloody noses.
The lifeguarding experience can also help a teen mature in ways that mowing lawns may not. Kyle Weisinger, another Madison parks guard (and Brad's son), says, "In my four years of guarding I've definitely gained the confidence factor. You'll have kids swearing at you. You have to know how to handle it. I've had to deal with six-foot-five super muscular guys and stayed calm. Sometimes dealing with people is just as stressful as a potential save."
Lindstrom, who will return to guard and teach youth swimming lessons for her third summer this year, agrees she's grown tremendously from her pool employment. "I've learned to talk to people I didn't know. I am not afraid of working under pressure. I've learned to take responsibility for my actions; if you mess up it can have enormous consequences."
Over the years Weisinger has seen the life skills his guards develop lead to careers in the helping professions. "We've had guards go into medicine, chiropractics and education," he says. His son intends, perhaps not surprisingly, to become an emergency medical technician.
And while Taylor plans to use her molecular biology degree from the UW-Madison to become a research scientist, she says her guarding experience will stay with her for life. "The swim season will long be over and I can be sitting in a restaurant with friends, see a kid running and will still ask them to walk."
"Once a lifeguard," she says, "always a lifeguard."