As we get ready for a new year and a new era at Guard for Life, we know how important it is to recognize excellence. All our lifeguards are great, but there are some who go above and beyond to offer the best of their abilities, and more. The best of them all is considered our National Lifeguard of the Year.
It takes more than a strong work ethic and showing up early to become the National Lifeguard of the Year. Nominations come in from all our regional offices to offer their best and brightest candidates. The winner for 2021 was Helen Carter from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia office!
We sat down with Helen and talked about lifeguarding during the pandemic, future career opportunities, and why cleaning a pump room is much more satisfying than you might think. You can watch the interview or read the transcript below. And remember, there’s still time to apply for the 2022 season!
GUARD FOR LIFE: I’m here with Helen Carter who is our latest 2021 National Lifeguard of the Year. Helen, congratulations!
HELEN CARTER: Thank you so much
It’s exciting, and you know, I’ve known you for a few years now and we’ve done some other video projects together. We did the parent info sessions and the guard info sessions as well, I think?
Yes, we did.
That seemed to be a nice collaboration, but, uh, this COVID doesn’t seem to want to go away.
No, it doesn’t.
We might have to wind up doing it again. So how many years have you been lifeguarding?
I’ve been lifeguarding for about six years. This upcoming summer will be my seventh.
Wonderful. And what first got you interested in the job?
I was a swimmer and I used to spend every summer at the pool all day, every day. My cousins were lifeguards and I thought they were the coolest people. So I decided I wanted to be like them. And I remember one day, my cousin bought a really nice camera with her paycheck, and that’s when i knew. She was cool, and she made money.
And I was like, “That’s going to be me.” And here we are. I just stuck with it.
It’s a great job, and you can buy things!
A definite bonus. And do you have any font memories or funny stories from this past season?
So it’s actually kind of crazy. I managed two pools this summer, and one of them opened in early May and stayed open until Halloween. So when I’m trying to think of memories it’s such a big time span.
I think my favorite memory is one day, we had some mechanical issues at the pool. And so with that I thought, “Well, what can we do since we’re not necessarily guarding at the moment?” So I made a very ambitious list of things to clean, and one of them was the pump room. And me and one of my guards, Mimi, cleaned it while listening to music on a speaker, and we just had so much fun.
It was really the little things like that — playing music in the guard office, and just getting to know the guards — that was really the highlight of my summer. I genuinely looked forward to work every day, so I liked that but I loved every day.
I met Mimi. She clearly looks up to you, so I think you did a great job there.
So what’s the best part about lifeguarding?
The best part about lifeguarding … Oh my gosh, it sounds cheesy because I love it all, but I honestly think it’s fun. It really is fun. And I love what i do, so getting to become friends with all the lifeguards and talking to everybody that comes to the pool and getting to know everyone, I think that’s really what I look forward to each day. So the best part is the connections you make.
OK, and the hardest part about it?
The hardest part about it … I would say is just getting everything done. There’s always a lot to take care of and I want the pool to be as clean and safe as possible at all times. And I make schedules, so, kind of managing that for everybody. And maintaining an operational facility, as well as maintaining a very clean standard, is the hardest part. But it’s rewarding when you get it all done.
Now one of the other hats you wear is you’re one of our instructors, is that correct?
So you’re a pool manager, you’re a lifeguard, you’re a lifeguard instructor, you do some staffing … What don’t you do?
(Laughs) I don’t know, it sounds like I do it all.
In terms of lifeguard instruction, what do you like about that part of your job?
I love public speaking and i like teaching people things so whether its’ poolside or i’m teaching someone how to vacuum or test the pool chemicals or even an assistant manager how to backwash [the pool’s filters], or it’s a lifeguard course where I’m teaching everything from water rescues to basic lifeguard support to first aid.
I just like the feeling of helping other people know what to do, because when I was in their shoes I became a lot more confident when I understood the why and the how to learning new skills. So I just like to pass along that information. And it’s fun to see people finally get it and see it click.
Nice! There’s a lot of responsibility to lifeguard supervision in your role as a manager so how do you manage it?
Well I think you need a balance. There are certain things that need to get done and that’s the job, that’s the responsibility. But with that being said, I want the guards to want to be there. It’s managing your responsibilities and having fun and maintaining good relationships with everybody. So pretty much trying to be as laid back as possible because you know everyone is doing what they’re supposed to because you led by example. And there’s really no other way they’d want to do it , because why wouldn’t you want to do things correctly?
Makes sense to me. Our very first national guard of the year, Gerald Seawright — he’s somebody you’re associated with, you work in the field together?
Yes, he’s my regional manager.
He said, “Helen was able to impart the same guard culture I saw her building at her original pool. The guards of the new pool quickly and eagerly picked up what she was putting down. No longer were guards having to be asked to do things such as vacuum or clean the bathrooms. They were asking Helen for things to do.” What are those values in the culture that matter most to you?
Well, when I go somewhere, I would want the pool to be fun, welcoming, friendly, clean. And so that’s my work ethic, and I try to embody that and I think the guards just realize, “Hey, this is the environment we want, too.”
Everyone that comes in, I try to greet them with a friendly smile. And when I’m cleaning, I’m smiling because I love it. And sometimes you’ll catch me dancing when I’m vacuuming. So I think guards realize that when you enjoy what you do, then it makes everything more fun.
And I keep saying fun, because I think that’s really the biggest part of the culture. You want to have fun, and when you do that, nothing really seems hard. It’s just something you get done and you enjoy doing it.
No doubt about it: Fun makes things a whole lot better. We see a lot of people start out as lifeguards continue their careers in aquatics — coaches, recruiters, even pool technicians — but there’s also a lot of important career skills that lifeguarding can teach you. How do you think it’s helped you evolve professionally?
I think — that’s a tough one. I think it’s taught me to treat everyone with compassion and that’s really shown me how to communicate better. So even if there’s a difficult situation, there’s always something someone’s trying to say to you. So if you really listen, you can get to the root of the problem. I think it helps with conflict resolution.
And I think it also helps with being focused. Because clearly you need to focus on the water — you don’t want anything bad happening to anyone — so I think it teaches you responsibility as well, and I think those things you can take with you into any work capacity.
No doubt about it — responsibility is huge. So this year and last year have been difficult for lifeguards: learning protocols for COVID-19, working through the pandemic, and then this year’s lifeguard shortage … It’s been a lot.
How do you stay poised and able to perform your duties when so much around you can be so stressful?
Being grateful for what I have. I’m so grateful for the guards and their availability and their willingness to pick up shifts. I’m so grateful for all the people who come to the pool and are friendly to us. There’s one man at my pool who buys us pizza just to say thank you. So it’s those little things. And when you express gratitude, I think you realize you have more than you think you do. So it’s not about what you don’t have, it’s about what you do.
This season was also the first to fully introduce our new partners, Ellis and Associates, and you were an integral part of teaching your office the new system. What do you think are the benefits of the Elllis model of lifeguard instruction?
I love Ellis, and I’m not just saying that. I feel like we have a lot of support from our safety team … Any time I have any questions, they get back to me very quickly. So I love the support it provides, but I also love the flexibility in the teaching program because every instructor is different in how they need to get across information effectively, and every student is different in how they learn.
With our previous program, I liked that it was pretty set, but with Ellis there’s more flexibility to get to know the person and do activities needed to make the information stick. And so overall, I feel like it’s more effective in that there’s a much larger emphasis on guest recognition. If you can get to a guest before they go underwater, then you’ve made your job a lot easier and you’ve made their chances of surviving a lot higher.
What’s some advice you would give to new lifeguards?
Never stop asking questions. If you ask Gerry, he’ll say I ask him every question I have because you want to know the answer you want to learn. And even if you see someone else maybe not doing everything they’re supposed to, that doesn’t mean it’s an invitation for you to do less. Keep your passion, keep working hard, keep your ethics, and just show up. Show up on time and be ready to work and it’ll show.
Any advice for guards looking to move up as an instructor or supervisor?
Again, ask questions. Get to know the people who are doing what you want to do. Figure out how they got there and figure out what they like about it, and realize that you can do, it too. And then just … I don’t know, go for it! That’s what I did.
Anything else I’m not covering with my questions that you’d like to say?
I’m just so lucky and grateful to have the job that I do and I love it so much, and that I think about that every time I’m at the pool.