Part of the training to become a lifeguard involves understanding panic and the power of the survival instinct in someone who is drowning. I remember the training videos of true stories documenting the tremendous strength of adrenaline that led to tragedies like a tiny preschooler clamping himself around his father’s neck and drowning them both. I have felt the desperate grab of wide-eyed children caught in the force at the bottom of the waterslide where I worked as a teen guard. Popping in and out of waist-deep rushing water to grab a kid hardly made an impact on any us as it was a low-risk, nearly daily occurrence.
When I was eighteen, I agreed to teach a friend’s fourteen-year-old brother how to swim in my backyard pool. He was too embarrassed take lessons at the public pool where I had taught a number of fearful adults. By then I had taught a couple of hundred kids at home.
None of my swimming lesson lifejackets fit Ray, so we started our lessons with a styrofoam kickboard and just walked around the perimeter of the tiny shallow end. Once he was feeling more confident, I taught him to blow bubbles, get his face wet and he progressed to assisted floats.
As his confidence grew, it was clear that we needed more space. When Ray did a float, his body filled the entire shallow area of the pool. I wanted to get him to start kicking his feet and moving around in the water, but there was simply nowhere to go except for the deep end. I laid down the safety rules.
“Forget that it’s the deep end. You can float without putting your feet down. You can flip on your back. It doesn’t matter how close the bottom is because you don’t need it. If you’re tired or your board slips, float on your back and I’ll pull you to the side. Just relax and don’t grab me. Ok? DON’T GRAB ME. You’ll be fine.”
And Ray was fine - for about three seconds. He awkwardly let go of the wall and started to kick his feet. From beside him in the water, I saw his shoulders tense up, his arms straighten and push his chest up off the board, causing it to rock uncontrollably from side to side. He violently flipped over - arms and legs thrashing. I tried to get behind him but he was both clinging to me and climbing me and we were plunged into an eerie quiet as we struggled underwater. His strength astounded me. My foot shot out and caught him in the middle of his chest, and I broke free long enough swim down under him and away, then to the surface to catch a fast breath. I then grabbed him from behind before he could reach me. Somehow, I dragged him to the surface and slammed him into the concrete side of the pool. I have no recollection of what happened after that. I do know that was our last lesson, and that I never took a non-swimmer anywhere near his size back there again.
I remember so many positive things about becoming a lifeguard, but the dreaded part of my early training involved being ‘attacked’ by my instructors and peers in simulations (see ’Leapfrog’ game in link, p102) for a new, tame version) of the situation I ended up having with Ray that day. Being ready for it probably saved both of our lives. Without the prior practice, I would have been completely unprepared for his strength, and would not have had the reflex to kick and the wisdom to duck down under him before heading to the surface for that crucial breath that allowed me to bring him up.
Please put your children into swimming lessons and take them swimming regularly. Ensure that they know about water safety. And protect yourselves. DO NOT jump in after someone - reach something out to them or throw something that floats. IF YOU MUST JUMP IN after a little one, bring something that floats to shove into their arms from behind them so they have something to grab that isn’t you. Supervise your children around water, and be a good role model. You can’t expect your children to wear a lifejacket in a boat if you are sitting on yours. Even great swimmers need a lifejacket if they are unconscious in the water, have a cramp, an injury or are too exhausted or cold to carry on.
Not everyone needs to get their lifeguard qualifications - but in Canada and the U.S. in 2012, there should not be any more Rays. And when you think about it, he really is one of the lucky ones. He was embarrassed and could still be a non-swimmer, but he’s cautious and he’s alive. Last summer in Ontario alone we lost at least six children to drowning - and even more children lost loved ones.
Be prepared so that this summer can be a great one with your friends and family.
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