During the winter of 2009, I took a job as a professional lifeguard for the Sunshine Coast Regional Council Lifeguard Service in Queensland, Australia.
The reason behind my trip was twofold. A) There is no way a person will not have the time of their life when they take a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity in a land that is as far away from their doorstep as they can possibly go without coming back around the other direction, and B) I wanted the job as a means of some sort of professional development, sort of in the same vein as my much more mature and much more responsible friends had seemed to be doing in other, various, non-beach related careers.
Since I had been a lifeguard here in New Jersey for four years and had been offered the chance to go to Australia and be blindly trusted by the powers-that-be to handle myself in their waters, I had all intentions of soaking up as much knowledge of the profession as I could and bring back this information to share it with my hometown patrol.
When I was younger and still relied on land-based jobs, I had always perceived lifeguard competitions in much the same way the general public seemed to perceive them: e.g. whichever town wins the tournament clearly has the “best” patrol.
But the season before I left for Australia, I had caught on to a sort of rift in the value of these popular competitions.
One side of this rift thought that the good ol’ lifeguard tournament was a bit of a waste of resources, whereas the workday should of course be focused on beach safety and the prevention of having to even perform a rescue, rather than training for hours on end for tournaments that, in the end, did not show off a skill to rescue anyone at all, but instead showed pure speed and skill through the water.
The other side of course stated that competitions were in place as a means to keep lifeguards at the level of fitness that was expected of them by the general public and to prevent them from becoming instantly fatigued in the midst of even a simple rescue. Bragging rights and trophy-displaying aside, this too seemed like a pretty sound argument.
But I still became discomforted with the way some patrols had seemed to place winning competitions first, so much so that it seemed their primary focus – saving lives – started to present itself as an afterthought.
In other words, I started to perceive as indirect relationship between patrols that placed competitions as priority and seemed to place the technical aspects of a rescue as secondary.
The reason this negative school of thought came about is because of the very nature of the lifeguard competition and how it in fact goes against some of the more basic foundations of lifeguarding. First and foremost, the new attitude, i.e. post-“Baywatch”, is that prevention of rescues is the true test of a good lifeguard, which inspires many maxims which basically amount to “The best lifeguard is the one with the driest shorts.”
To clarify, the lifeguard who can spot the danger before it happens and can prevent a beach patron from encountering any trouble is displaying a high level of ocean experience and knowledge. The lifeguard who made 20 successful recues in an hour, on the other hand, probably wasn’t taking the necessary means to provide a safe ocean experience for their beach patrons.
But one particular conversation I had with a senior lifeguard in Australia redirected this attitude towards competition as he pointed out one significant aspect of the etymology of the very word “competition”.
While discussing these concerns I had with regards to patrols that seemed to place focus on their competitive nature, this guard – of
years of infinite wisdom and experience – told me, “Look, the word
‘competition’ comes from the Greek for: to strive together.”
I didn’t bother to immediately confirm the information that this guard told me, nor did I think to immediately question its validity, either. To me, the kneejerk reaction has always been to think of competition as a means of individualistic pursuit (I won because I have what it takes to win and I trained harder than the next person), but the truth is that the real results of competition branch out to everyone who wishes to participate in any form of training.
After all, the vision he instilled with this simple statement was of the immense training that some of these lifeguards endure, most of the time before or after actual work hours, to not only keep their own skills sharp, but to ensure that the next guy or girl who is going to be called in for backup is just as fit and able-bodied and –minded as he/she is.
As much as I had prided myself in preventative lifeguard actions (a “preventative action” is any form of communication – whistling, talking to a beach patron, using a public address), I was reminded that no matter how much you plan for the day’s ocean conditions, Mother Nature still has the final say on the course that any given moment takes. And when that happens, you want to be well sure that the people who you train with are just as confident as you are when you step into an element that human beings – let’s face it – just flat out weren’t born to be in.
So, the lifeguard competition stands as a means of motivation to ensure that lifeguards are constantly pushing each other beyond the levels of comfort that they would achieve if they were left only to their own non-competitive and purely individualistic devices.
Keeping a competition in your sights keeps you (relatively) out of trouble, serves as a motivation to keep all the guards fit and ready for the unexpected nature of the ocean, and inspires confidence in beach patrons that they are being watched over by some of their town’s most highly-skilled watermen who pride themselves in their ability to negotiate and adapt to the ever-changing conditions of the ocean.
To see this kind of training in action, be sure to head toHarvey Cedars tonight and Saturday for the 50th running of the Long Beach Island Lifeguard Championships. The tournament begins at 6:00pm sharp on Hudson Avenue.