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Cedar Rapids lifeguard Gemma Tursi looks out when you jump in

Lifeguards like Gemma Tursi aim to keep swimmers safe

Gemma Tursi, 17, waits Wednesday for swimmers to ride the drop slide as a line forms on the stairs at the Cherry Hill Aquatic Center in Cedar Rapids. “It takes a lot of training” to become a lifeguard, she said. ”It was a lot more than I realized coming into the job.” (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Gemma Tursi, 17, waits Wednesday for swimmers to ride the drop slide as a line forms on the stairs at the Cherry Hill Aquatic Center in Cedar Rapids. “It takes a lot of training” to become a lifeguard, she said. ”It was a lot more than I realized coming into the job.” (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Swimming pools are in full splash mode, now that temperatures are hitting squarely in the hot zone.

And while the kids are at play, the lifeguards are on point, keeping watch over everyone taking the plunge.

One of the veterans at the Cherry Hill Aquatic Center is Gemma Tursi, 17, of Cedar Rapids. She’s in her third year of lifeguarding, before heading off to the University of Iowa in the fall. She hopes to keep working in the pools there, too.

Water is in her blood.

Her mother, Amy, was a lifeguard, and her father, John, was on the citizens’ Splash committee to promote the 2002 local-option sales tax vote that passed, enabling the city to replace six municipal pools.

Cherry Hill is the city’s largest outdoor aquatic center, with nearly 19,000 square feet of water area. It sports 14 lap lanes, two 28-foot-tall slides, a drop slide, a one-meter diving board and a variety of water play areas, as well as dryland amenities for fun in the sun and shade.

Tursi and the other lifeguards may whistle while they work, but when they do, they mean business.

Cherry Hill is open long hours, between morning swimming lessons, lap swims, open swims, night swims and twilight swims. Tursi said pulling double shifts makes for a long day. For a single shift, however, she might work from noon to 5 p.m. or 6:15 to 9 p.m. After swimmers leave, lifeguards pitch in on cleaning details.

Q: How long do you stay in the chairs?

A: We switch every 15 minutes, just so we don’t get bored and it keeps our minds active. We have six rotations on one side and seven rotations on the other, so then we get a 15-minute break.

Q: How do you protect yourself when you’re out in the sun?

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A: Sunscreen is super important and we always reapply when we go down (off the chairs) and then (drink) water a lot of the time. Sometimes our managers will walk around to make sure that we have water and ice on a really sunny day. Sometimes we’re required to pop in the water in between our rotations.

Q: What is the protocol if you see somebody in trouble?

A: So personally, I ask myself some questions. ... I first look to see if they are either playing or if their stroke is just kind of a little different. So then once I figure out if they actually are struggling, then I look to see, will they make it to safety before I can get to them? And if the answer to that is no, they really are struggling, then I will go in and get them. We have 10 seconds to spot a drowning victim and then 20 seconds to get them, so you have to be able to pick up on any struggling patrons quickly, so that you can get to them as fast as possible.

Q: What happens when someone is in trouble and you need to do a rescue?

A: We will do a long whistle, which signals to all the other lifeguards to stand up, and then they will point so that the manager and the two down guards will be able to run out. Every single staff member at the pool has a specific role and part to make sure that the person is safe, and that the rest of the facility will be OK. We don’t clear the pool unless the backboard goes into the water if there’s a very serious spinal injury.

Q: Have you ever had to participate in a real-life rescue, not a simulated one?

A: Yeah, I’ve had to twice.

Q: Good outcomes each time?

A: Yes, definitely.

Q: What does it take to become a lifeguard — what kind of training and how long?

A: It takes a lot of training. It was a lot more than I realized coming into the job. After you take your lifeguarding course, and then once you’re hired, we have about two to three weeks of training, usually twice to three times a week, for three to four hours. Coming into the job, I kind of figured I would take the class and then my first day working would be me up in a chair. But that was not the case at all. We had so much training to make sure that we were prepared.

Q: What are a couple of things you wish swimmers and/or parents would know about pool etiquette, pool safety?

A: I wish I could tell mostly parents that although all of the lifeguards are more than qualified and we have been through a lot of training, that we aren’t necessarily baby-sitters and that you still need to watch your kids, and to make sure that they are right next to you within arm’s reach. I wish they understood where we’re coming from with our rules. All of them are set in place to protect all the patrons. Even if (the rules) seem ridiculous, they have a very important purpose.

Q: What are the ones people roll their eyes at?

A: Goggles on the slides. ... You can’t wear them or have them around your wrist. It’s the manufacturer’s rule, but also the slides are moving so fast, if (the goggles) fall out, there’s a chance they could become lost, which has happened before. I wish, also, that they understood that if we whistle at them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are mad at them or that they’re being horrible. It’s just our way to get their attention to let them know that we don’t allow certain things that they’re doing.

Q: What’s the importance of taking swimming lessons? Here, they’re fully guarded, and there’s a zero-depth entry. Do you advocate for swim lessons?

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A: Absolutely. Although we are constantly moving and watching our zones and scanning, on crowded days there’s so many day-cares, and it’s just easier if kids can swim. And then even for themselves, they can go more places, they can go off the drop off (slide) and the diving board. It opens up the whole pool to them, and it’s just a lot safer if they can swim and kind of help them themselves.

Q: Do you guys ever get to play on the stuff when the kids aren’t around? Do you get to go on the slides and get to swim for fun out here?

A: We do. In between lap swim and open swim, we get some slide time — but we have to follow all of the patron rules.

Q: What’s your favorite?

A: I like the yellow (speed) slide. It’s scary, but it’s pretty good.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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