By Pauline Kerr
You could always tell the lifeguards from ordinary teens by their red eyes, greenish hair and the remnants of diaper cream on their noses – and by the way they knew every little kid in the neighbourhood.
The little kids knew them, too. Lifeguards were regarded as local heroes of sorts. Considering the fact most of them were little more than children themselves, they did a fine job of keeping little ones safe. They took them from whimpering non-swimmers, terrified to put more than a toe in the water, to confident youngsters able to swim hundreds of metres. They patched up skinned knees, handled the situation when someone vomited – or worse – in the water, and evicted the kids who insisted on playing in an unsafe manner.
They were looked up to and admired for good reason. They kept the kids safe.
Children all aspired to become lifeguards, and they all took swimming lessons. It was part of summer – early morning swimming classes in August, the mist swirling over the chilly water, parents in heavy sweaters waiting in cars for their kids, looking for all the world like shivering young Smurfs, to return to dry land.
The irony is that even with no access to indoor pools, just outdoor pools or a weedy bit of beach by the river or lake, most kids learned how to swim. They were taught by those teenaged lifeguards what to do if caught in an undertow, why swimming during a thunderstorm is dangerous, and to avoid hazards in the water, along with the front crawl, back stroke and treading water.
Swimming lessons are no longer a regular part of summer. Most years, summer is filled with art camp, soccer, baseball, summer school, travel, extended visits with relatives and much more. Apart from swimming lessons offered as part of the curriculum at some schools, learning how to enjoy water safely is no longer a priority.
In a way, the push decades ago to make sure every child knew how to swim was a victim of its own success. People make the increasingly incorrect assumption kids can swim. That assumption has cost lives. In 2017, a school group from Toronto went camping in Algonquin Park, and a boy tragically drowned. All participants were supposed to have passed a swimming test, but the boy went on the trip despite the fact he was a non-swimmer.
Beaches that used to have lifeguards now do not, putting the onus on parents and guardians to watch their children. Some do. Others snooze on deck chairs, oblivious to the fact the toddler is following his siblings into the surf.
There are a good many kids playing in rivers and lakes during this COVID-19 summer – there is not much else to do – and it is a safe bet quite a few of them have only a rudimentary knowledge of water safety and limited swimming skills.
Those teenaged lifeguards with the white goop on their noses would have cringed at the lack of supervision, and the blissful assumption a floating toy is enough to keep kids safe. They would have known full well the latter, when used by a poor swimmer, can get a person in trouble faster than nothing at all.
There are so many ways kids can enjoy the water these days – surf boards, kayaks, canoes, Sea-doo watercraft and delightful pool floaties. But none is a substitute for knowing how to swim.
There is still a lot of summer left to enjoy in spite of COVID-19. Many youngsters will be having fun as close to the water as they can get, whether it is wading in a creek, rafting on the river like modern-day Huckleberry Finns, hitting the beach or enjoying a friend’s pool. If those lifeguards from days gone by were to have the chance to offer advice, it would probably be, “Watch them! And teach them to swim.”
Bravo to lifeguards past and present. There should be more of them, and a lot more kids who know how to swim.