Learning life skills through lifeguarding

Jason Deng and Michael Liu

A little girl thrashes her arms in the water as she struggles to stay afloat. Her head goes under. The teenage lifeguard dives into the pool, pulls her out of the water and saves her life.

Junior Sebastian Quinonez started lifeguarding four months ago, hoping to gain experience in the workforce and make some money on the side. 

“I had to save two people’s lives,” Quinonez said. “The first one was on my very first day on the job. It was a pretty easy save because it was just a little girl drowning but it was so all of a sudden that I didn’t expect that and it caught me off guard. It freaked me out a little bit but I got the job done. 

Junior Roman Bernal works his shift from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on a weekday. Though it’s off-season and there are fewer swimmers, Bernal still has to remain vigilant and focused while on duty. (Michael Liu)

On his fourth shift as a lifeguard, he had to save yet another child. This time, it was an autistic kid who couldn’t swim properly. Quinonez stepped up to the plate and brought him to safety. He said he was more relaxed because he had done it before.

“I felt good about it because I knew that if I wasn’t there or if I wasn’t paying attention, they probably would have lost their life but since I saved their life, their parents are very, very thankful that I was there and watching them,” Quinonez said.

Quinonez first started lifeguarding to follow in the footsteps of his older sister who lifeguarded for three years in the same area before going off to college. The good pay, fun environment and the fact that it was a “really easy job” led him to pursue it.

The average day of being a lifeguard, according to Quinonez, begins with one of his parents driving him to the Bellaire Family Aquatics Center, where he primarily works. He starts his shift by getting the keys from the padlock, unlocking everything and getting everything ready for people to come.

“The best experience I’ve had was one day during the summer it was thundering so we were closed down,” Quinonez said. “We just started playing a bunch of board games like with each other – Jenga and stuff – and just talking and it was really fun.”

“Then we go to the office area where we just chill and wait for people to come,” Quinonez said. “Once somebody comes in and we just get out there, sit in their chair, watching them. We rotate in with whoever we’re working with. And then once that’s over, we close the place down, put the keys back where they belong.”

Junior Roman Bernal also had to save two lives at the Bellaire Pool during his employment as a lifeguard since July. He describes the feeling of being responsible for somebody’s life.

“When it does come down to it you’ll get a fight or flight feeling,” Bernal said. “Obviously you have to go for the fight because you know you can’t just run away from it. If you do, you can be sued for negligence and lose your job.”

Bernal had his most memorable experience as a lifeguard before he worked at the Bellaire Pool. He was lifeguarding at a small neighborhood pool when two toddlers started drowning during a party.

Juniors Sebastian Quinonez and Roman Bernal take their annual lifeguarding course where they reviewed the protocols and techniques they would need while on duty. They decided to study the material together after meeting each other and finding out that they went to the same school. (Michael Liu)

“I had to jump in and save one of them and I had to get the dad to help me hold the kid and make sure he was doing okay while I got the other one,” Bernal said. “They were both fine in the end. One of the kids was struggling and was really shaken and he didn’t want to go to the water for the rest of the day. The worst part of that was probably just seeing the kid’s face because I love the water, I like to swim and I like anything aquatic and seeing him being scared to do that was sad for me.”

Knowing that he is impacting the lives of others is what motivates Bernal to go to work every day.

“My biggest influence is my Scoutmaster,” Bernal said. “He works with the fire department and he is typically the first person to enter a burning house and locate people. He says that every time is like a different experience and he’s still scared to do it. It’s an incredible thing to do and I just want to experience that myself.”

Being a junior at Bellaire, Bernal has to consider balancing his job and his school work. On the days that Bernal knows that he will have a shift the next day, he makes sure he finishes his homework the day before.

“If I’m swamped, I usually just try to finish the chores fast and clean the pool,” Bernal said. “There’s a 15-minute break every hour for me to do homework between shifts.”

The 16-year-old started working so he could pay for a car as well as to save his money in his bank account for the future. He learned what having a real job is like as a high school student.

“I’d say time management is probably the biggest thing,” Bernal said. “And communication too. There have been times when my parents asked me to do something at the last second and I had to ask my friends to do me a favor and cover my shift. It’s hard to do because you feel like you’re not living up to the expectation for your job.”

Being a lifeguard isn’t as easy as people think. Just like any other job, lifeguarding comes with plenty of challenges.

“Typically there’s only one lifeguard, who switches posts once a day, but I’m there for like five hours at a time,” Bernal said. “And typically for a party, you should get an extra person but I had to do a party on my own and it was really stressful because it’s hard to manage like 50-60 people on your own. And since our pool is private, we don’t really have any backing for legal trouble because we’re not backed by the city so we have parents talking back to you and children going two at a time on a slide that can barely hold one person.”

When Bernal encounters situations like these, he has to call everyone out and go over the rules again. At one point, Bernal snapped and had to threaten to call his boss, the owner of the pool.

“Communicating definitely improved for me,” Bernal said. “I used to be horrible. I used to not speak up for anything. In this job, you have to learn that you need to assert yourself, you need to be able to tell people what they’re doing wrong. You also need to know what to ask for help. That’s a big thing. You’ve got to put your pride aside.”