Lifeguards on duty

June 27, 2008, 1:21 p.m. (ET)
 

The last person you would expect to drown in a pool is Michael Phelps. But Amanda Kettle's job next week will be to ensure that doesn't happen.

With a whistle around her neck, the 21-year-old college senior and trained lifeguard will spend from June 29 until July 6 poolside carefully watching Phelps and 1,000 or so other Olympic hopefuls swim in two makeshift pools at Omaha's Qwest Center during the 2008 Olympic Trials.

The Qwest Center is normally a pool-free 17,000-seat arena built for concerts and sporting events. In mid-May, organizers began constructing a concrete platform on the arena floor on top of which they erected a 50-meter-long, 10-lane temporary pool out of stainless steel panels imported from Italy. The pool buries nine rows of seats.

In the Qwest Center's attached convention center, they constructed a similar warm-up pool.

And both pools, believe it or not, require lifeguards. Who would have thought the nation's best swimmers would need lifeguards? It's hard not to laugh.

"I get that reaction a lot when people ask me about it," says Kettle, who sees nothing amusing about her upcoming assignment, a job she volunteered for after she heard about the opportunity last summer. When not in class at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Kettle, an aspiring nurse, lifeguards at Lifetime Fitness, a health club in Omaha.

 

"[Olympic Trials] is not like a traditional recreational facility where we're keeping people from drowning," explains James Meyers, the training and education manager for the American Red Cross Heartland Chapter who is organizing the lifeguards at trials and hired Kettle. "It's mostly swimmers running into each other, running into the wall and breaking bones, and hitting the lane ropes so they get cuts and scrapes."

 

"That's why the guards are there," he adds. "It's not to go in and save somebody or tell the kids not to run on the pool deck. If they are running on the deck, it's probably because they're late for their race."

 

In all, 40 lifeguards from around Nebraska are volunteering their time next week, says Meyers. They will split four shifts each day, five guards per shift, during the eight-day event.

When asked if lifeguarding at trials is purely ceremonial - after all, what could possibly happen to 2004 Olympic gold medal swimmers like Phelps or Aaron Peirsol or Natalie Coughlin who practically live in the water? - Kettle points out that through a series of training sessions, she has learned that a lot can, and has, happened.

"It's not going to be anything minor," she warns.

"The main thing that they're worried about is when swimmers get going really fast in the water, they can't really see very clearly," she explains. "Things start to blur."

Like the walls of the pool. Or other swimmers sharing lanes during warm-up.

"In the warm-up pool is where they said we're going to see most accidents," she adds. "There are two people per lane, they can't see who is in front of them, so they crash into each other. Sometimes you get head injuries, back injuries, they hit their head, and you have to pull them out, and they need stitches. Or they'll do a flip turn and smash their ankles on the side of the pool."

At the 2004 Olympic Trials in Long Beach, Calif., she was told that a swimmer broke both his ankles doing a flip turn and couldn't compete.

"When you've got a limited amount of space and a couple hundred kids warming up at any given time, that's when you see some injuries take place," adds Meyers.

So much for swimming being a safe sport. Well, besides the risk of drowning ...

But don't look for lifeguard chairs overlooking the competition pool or listen for any whistles. Only the warm-up pool has those tall lifeguard chairs on deck. At the competition pool in the arena, the lifeguards will be more discreetly placed.

"We sit all the way back in the first row of seats in the center of the pool," Kettle says.

And the whistles? "We have whistles, but I don't know what we're going to use them for."

Other than getting front-row seats to watch swimming trials and hopefully a new Speedo swimsuit (Kettle says her Olympic Trials "uniform" has yet to arrive), the job of a lifeguard at Olympic Trials has few other perks.

"The lifeguards, coaches, and athletes all eat in the same area, but we're not supposed to talk to the athletes," Kettle says.

"But they can talk to us" she adds. "So if Michael Phelps directs a question toward me, I can respond. But I can't really start a conversation with him."

The lifeguards can't even snap souvenir photos of their favorite swimmers. "We were told if we get caught with cameras or a camera phone on deck, they'll take it away, and we're going to be asked to leave."

But the organizers did let the lifeguards go into the Qwest Center last week and take photos of the arena and its 1-million-gallon temporary pool.

So what are the chances she would ever have to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Phelps or Peirsol?

"All we're supposed to do is pull them out of the water," says Kettle. "The EMTs will take care of everything else. The chances of us ever having to do [mouth-to-mouth] are slim to none."

 

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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