Lifeguards on Duty

Along the coastline of sunny San Diego, lifeguards start their day at the water’s edge. Under their watchful eyes are sun-blocked beach-goers and a seemingly endless expanse of ocean. 

It so happens that a few of the state and city lifeguards watching over San Diego’s swells are also TPHS students and community members. 

“Most of the time on an average day, I’m just making safety contacts,” Drew Smith (12), a state lifeguard, said. “If I see somebody getting into the water where there’s a really gnarly rip current, I’m going to go run down and tell them, ‘Slide down over here, so you don’t become a rescue.’”

For Smith and his lifeguard peers, the trajectory of a workday hinges not on reservations, deliveries or product shortages, but on the conditions, crowds and climate of the beach that day, as well as what beach they’re stationed at.

“My average day and shift usually starts at 11 in the morning,” Waylon Hollingsworth (11), a state lifeguard, said. “I open the tower up, radio-in that the tower is open, and basically the whole day I’ll scan the water and look for people that are in distress.”

Different shift times are another factor influencing the kind of work that needs to be done.

“If I work in the morning, I report to headquarters at 17th [street] then run to my tower and watch the water till I close,” Elizabeth Emberger, a seasonal Del Mar City lifeguard, said. 

But no matter the time, location and conditions of the shift, the majority of lifeguarding work revolves around being ready in case of an emergency.

“[On] a normal day, it’s long hours of just sitting broken up by brief moments of action,” Smith said.

Even in repetitive and occasionally dull moments, lifeguards have a passion for everything they do. At the heart of Emberger’s runs between towers, Hollingsworth’s watchful scans and Smith’s repeated check of the tides, courses a love for the job, whether it be the sand beneath their feet or the buoy under their arms.  

“I’ve been interested in lifeguarding for a long time,” Smith said. “Growing up, I was in Junior Guards, so I’ve grown up going to the beach and just being in the water.”

Smith’s long history with San Diego’s beaches is a common one, especially at a school like TPHS. With programs like Junior Lifeguards and the strong sports culture at TPHS instilling ocean skills and sportiness in local kids, it is not a surprise that Smith and many others ended up as lifeguards.

“I was a good runner and ocean swimmer,” Emberger said. “Plus I was extroverted and really interested in learning more about the medical side [of lifeguarding].”

It is these kinds of qualities and interests that inspire many locals to take the steps required to become a lifeguard. However, out of the large pool of those who pursue lifeguarding, few can endure the difficult physical trials at try-outs.

“The hiring process was a run-swim-run and then a paddle,” Emberger said. “Then there was immediately an interview afterwards”

Although lifeguarding at the city level and state level share many similarities, the state lifeguard training program goes deeper into the more specific technical knowledge of lifeguarding.

“If you pass the swim test, after that, you then go to an eight day training [camp] up in Huntington Beach,” Hollingsworth said.

As Smith called it, “the academy” in Huntington Beach emphasizes the parts of lifeguarding that may be often overlooked when physical ability and skill overshadow the importance of concrete medical aid. 

“They train you in bleeding control, CPR patient assessment, a lot of medical things,” Smith said. “They also teach you how to make rescues off boats, jet skis, things like that.”

Though it’s rare when Smith has to use the technical knowledge from his training, he and his fellow guards do much more to care for the beaches’ crowds than sitting in the tower and catching a few waves. 

“Sometimes we’ll have a little medical sprinkled in, like someone might get cut on their foot by a surfboard fin, and we’ll patch them up and treat it,” Smith said.

No matter how small the action is, to Smith, every moment spent helping others is what makes the job special.

“I think my favorite part about lifeguarding is just being able to be there for people and help people if they’re in trouble,” Smith said. “Most days, I don’t really make rescues… but when I do, it’s a really great feeling, to know that you’ve saved somebody’s life.” 

Even in the periods of relaxation between rescues, Emberger finds great value in connections with beach lovers around her.

“On the job, I love being able to stay active all day, chat with beach patrons and work out on break with my co-workers,” Emberger said.

Hollingsworth enjoys similar aspects of his job.

“I love spending time in the water with my friends,” Hollingsworth said. 

A seemingly universal truth is found within all lifeguards: community and connection. These values are fundamental to what makes San Diego’s lifeguards, lifeguards. 

“I really love the people. I’ve met a lot of really great people through lifeguarding, and I’ve gotten really great advice and guidance from the people I’ve met,” Smith said. “It’s just a really great network of people to have. Like [a] family.”

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