A lesson from lifeguarding: Jumping in with both feet.

9 February, L A.S.

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A lesson from lifeguarding: Jumping in With Both Feet

I’ve been a lifeguard since I was 17 to the present day, and I’ve learned a lot of things on the pool deck in that time. I want to share some of the wisdom, however small, that I’ve gained on the job in those hot, humid, and chlorine-scented rooms where I’ve made so many good friends, and tested the limits of my endurance in multiple ways. This essay is my first shot at sharing said wisdom.

As a lifeguard, you get a lot of time and social freedom to watch, and think. I’ve met a wide variety of interesting characters at the community pool where I work, people of all ages, races, shapes, sizes, swimming abilities, professions, income levels, tattoo coverage, swimsuit coverage, and temperament. War veterans, gynecologists, barbers, college professors, janitors, and cops. Blacks, whites, Ethiopians, Cambodians, Jews, Italians, and Hondurans. Many have interesting stories to tell, and many have boring stories to tell. Many are friendly, a few are surly, and many are just there and keep to themselves, as I tend to do. Recently, I’ve taken particular notice of the kindergarteners from a local charter school that take swim lessons during my afternoon shift.

One of the most daunting tasks the kindergarteners face (besides resisting the apparent siren call to run full speed barefoot across the slippery pool deck) is that of jumping into the pool. I don’t use the word “daunting” here with any mockery: I remember what it was like to be that small, next to a pool as big as Lake Ontario, waiting in line behind my shivering comrades to be cajoled by the giant and all-knowing adults into throwing myself off that seemingly massive height into the cold water, that, even in the shallow end, easily covered the top of my head were I to stand on the bottom. I, like most of the kids I’ve seen go through swim lessons, learned to love swimming and jumping into the pool, and I went on to swim competitively from age 8 to 18. Learning to swim enormously built my confidence in my ability to navigate life, to survive, and to prosper. Mastering skills is vital to the development of a healthy and successful human being, and I owe my parents a debt of gratitude for their support in my swimming career. But, I never forgot that jumping was scary at first!

The swim lesson teachers emphasize that when the kids take on the challenge of jumping into the water without help, (being caught, hand held, etc.) they need to do it right: toes curled over the edge of the pool, feet hitting the water first, and making sure to jump straight out into the water. Doing otherwise invites injury: I’ve never seen a serious injury from such errors as twisting at the last second to face and grab the pool gutter, or bending low at the knees to almost-slide in, but I’ve seen kids hit their feet or arms painfully on the sides, and I can easily see how concussions could occur.

Many of the kids are brave and confident, and jump in the right way the first time: feet first, straight out. But many instead react to the challenge with distress and anxiety, without any confidence, and they’re the ones who, if they jump at all, do it halfheartedly and therefore risk injury. I find it interesting that showing instinctive caution here is one’s enemy, and is actually the riskier option than leaping into the challenge with a reasonable amount of bravado.

I take this lesson of learning to jump into a pool as relevant to other life endeavors. Love, war, and business are all things that one cannot safely enter into with just one foot, and then the other, or in a desperate twisting motion back the way one came, or with a gradual and halfhearted lean-and-bending down over the water. Decide on a goal, figure out the proper way to achieve that goal, and leap in, feet first, straight out, to actually achieve that goal. If you lack confidence: review your plans in order to get said confidence halfway there, then fake the rest, and jump. To do otherwise is to risk cracking open your skull at the worst, and looking foolish in front of your peers at the best. Potential marital partners, globally ambitious presidents, and would-be business tycoons (not to mention ambitious fiction authors!) should all remember this lesson: jump straight and all the way with both feet, otherwise, stay on the deck!

-G.R. Wilson

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