- james meyers has been a volunteer lifeguard at four u.s. olympic swimming events since 2008.
- He says lifeguards are essential in these events, not “useless,” as a recent meme implies.
- he tells writer ryan s. gladwin what it is to be a lifeguard for the best swimmers.
a meme from the rio 2016 olympics said: “if you feel useless today, remember someone is working as a lifeguard at the olympics.”
It is a mistake to think that we are useless. unfortunately, people get hurt, so we have a role. Of the four Olympic events I’ve been a lifeguard at, this year was the first where we didn’t have to get in the water.
I have been a lifeguard in Omaha, Nebraska, for 26 years. the red cross does most of the lifeguard training. I had been working for them in 2008 and they asked me to help them with the tests.
It seemed like fun, so I said yes and have been doing it ever since.
We don’t just have to take care of the athletes. often outside groups use the pool between pretests and finals. we are lifesavers not only for the athletes but also for those events. we have never had to go for an athlete; it’s always been for everyone else.
The only reason we didn’t have to go into the pool this year was because of covid-19. external groups were not allowed to enter.
It’s like the fire department. our whole goal is to be in the background. if you have to see us, usually something bad has happened.
The flip side of this is that if there’s an emergency and we make a mistake, it ends up on youtube or on TV, no one wants that.
Most lifeguards at these events are trained to respond to medical issues or injuries where the person is unable to get out of the pool. that’s more likely to happen at the Olympic trials. this is different from a public pool, where lifeguards are trained to respond to drownings.
all lifeguards are volunteers. People come from all over the country to participate. we’ve had business people, nurses, and college students with friends at rehearsals.
Working at these events is usually a great experience. you can sit on deck to watch michael phelps and ryan lochte battle it out or see when someone sets a record.
some of the volunteers swim in competitions. they learn many techniques, habits and exercises that they have never seen before.
The closest we came to rescuing an athlete was in 2012. Once the Olympic trials were over, we organized the National Masters Meet, which is like a swim team for seniors.
We had a guy go into cardiac arrest while swimming. luckily he survived, but you can see why they need us.
In 2016, I had just had hip surgery, but still wanted to participate, so I had a scooter to get around the building. Apparently, I got too close to Phelps and he had to get out of the way. I never saw it, so in my mind, it never happened. but it’s pretty funny to say I almost ran him over.
As volunteers, we are asked not to solicit autographs in uniform, but behind the scenes, you have the opportunity to obtain them.
There are about 700 volunteers for the tests, of which only 50 are first responders. people travel here with their own money, paying for their own hotels, just to get involved. we show up at 5:30 am and sometimes we go until 10 pm.
nothing happens without the army of volunteers behind the scenes who go uncredited.
We hope we don’t have a role, but we do. when we are called, we have to be prepared for it. we can’t just sit there uninterested like the girl in the meme.