At the age of 79, I received on my right bicep a tattoo of a sea horse. The ink symbolized my pride in finally learning how to swim.
Two near drownings in my childhood stalled development of that vital skill. In the first episode, which occurred in a Chicago Park District pool, a teen lifeguard leaped from his perch to pull me from the deep end I had inadvertently paddled into.
In the second, it was my tormentor’s mother who sped into the North Avenue Beach waters from the hot sand to rescue me from her son, who thought it fun to continue to push me under.
News reports of lifeguard shortages around the country caused those two scares to rise to the surface of my memory and led me to a solution.
But before I jump in, let’s examine the reasons cited for the scarcity: The pandemic forced cancellation of certification classes, many former lifeguards moved to higher-paying jobs in retail and hospitality, and young foreign potential candidates with J-1 visas were banned by Donald Trump.
Now, let’s high-dive over these excuses and look to a population that could save the closing of pools and, for beaches, remove warnings about unguarded swimming.
While there is no stated limit to the age of potential lifeguards, the image in people’s minds, and in the media, is that of a brawny teen.
This cartooning is shortsighted. Why not cast our net to catch much older swimmers — those who consider themselves skilled and fit?
Many who share my health club pool are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Some could be candidates. Their toned bodies, easy stroking and steady breathing are evidence of their ability to perform a 300-yard swim and lift a 10-pound weight from the bottom of a pool — requirements of the American Red Cross. And I’m certain there are YMCA members who match my fellow swimmers.
Would my target group be enticed by an hourly pay of $17? Perhaps, if they were retired and seeking a challenging gig. Would a parent who has off hours thanks to child care (school or day camp) appreciate the opportunity to stay fit and earn extra money? Or better yet, why don’t those organizations who seek more lifeguards up the salary sufficiently to attract a surge?
Maybe, to lure older folks who are in tiptop shape, the answer lies more in that lifeguard salary. A leap in pay could be the reward for staying in good shape in their later years.
When I think back to the two rescuers of my childhood, I remember their rapid responses and compassionate treatment. Long after fishing me from the pool and assuring my health, the lifeguard kept an eye on me for the rest of that sunlit afternoon.
As for my neighbor, she used one arm to grab me around my waist and lift me from the water. The hand of her other arm was poised to smack her son. Two different techniques, but both effective.
Despite those two upsetting events, I never gave up my desire to be a swimmer. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began taking lessons. I frustrated swim coaches at the Lakeview YMCA, Independence Park’s indoor pool and Swedish Covenant’s health club.
I did not want to wear snorkel equipment, which would have been an easier path. I wanted to learn how to stroke and lift my head out of the water to catch a breath. And importantly, I hungered for the body of a swimmer — T-shaped, with broad shoulders, muscled arms and a straight back.
In 2018, a coach at the Aqua high-rise who specialized in teaching toddlers how to brave the water performed the miracle. I learned the crawl, breathing to my right side, and am now able to complete eight lengths in the East Bank Club’s small indoor pool three mornings a week.
With this lifelong dream and final achievement, I am saddened if one person in any of Chicago’s neighborhoods is denied the freedom, self-confidence and good health that swimming offers.
If someone like me — now 83 ½, healthy, with tattooed and muscled biceps, sculpted calves and broad shoulders — could learn to swim, children and adults throughout Chicago should have easy access to watery classrooms.
Hopefully, park districts and beach supervisors will take my advice and widen the net to welcome to their crews proficient swimmers of advanced ages.
Hear my whistle, older athletes — come to the rescue!
Elaine Soloway is a Chicago-based writer.
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