I Was A High School Lifeguard (And Other Truths That Now Make Me Feel Fat)

“I was a lifeguard for, like, five years,” I say casually to my coworkers. “I mean, I didn’t really save anyone’s life or anything. It was just kind of what you did in a small town when you were sixteen and needed a summer job and wanted to make out with your boyfriend behind the chlorine shed.”

My friend Charlie nods as I take out my lunch. “Double sandwiches again?”


I was a lifeguard, and a swim instructor, for five years. The summers of sixteen-seventeen-eighteen-nineteen-twenty: twirled a whistle around my fingers. Burned thick tan lines into my shoulderblades. Taught toddlers to float. At sixteen: kissed Lifeguard Jamie during staff party while the older kids drank contraband beers. Seventeen: kissed Lifeguard Mike in the underground chlorine bunker*. Eighteen-nineteen-twenty: Pined after college boys with bad haircuts who lived in different states. Showed up to work on time. Blew bubbles with babies. Taught dozens of kids how to dive.

I’ve never been an athlete. Swimming was the closest I ever came to feeling like I could fake my way towards some kind of athletic prowess, but I was never one of the swim team girls with big ripped shoulders and permanent goggle ridges on my eyebrows. I was just the girl who muscled her way through the lifeguard test. I did once spend eight puberty-stricken months on the Adirondack Splash Synchronized Swimming Team, which was sort of cool. If by “cool,” I mean, “I cannot stress to you enough the magnitude of how incredibly uncool this was.” We came in last place at the only meet we ever entered. Shortly thereafter the Adirondack Splash Synchronized Swimming Team disbanded and I attempted to burn all the photos of me wearing a sparkly bathing suit and waterproof headpiece.

Lot of things have happened since I was a lifeguard. Lifeguard Jamie got married. Lifeguard Mike got engaged. I discovered an affinity for Jack Daniels and the fancy cheese section at Whole Foods.

Surprising absolutely no one but myself, I don’t look quite the same in a bathing suit anymore.


The girl at the desk looks at me strangely as she hands over the key fob. “Do you, uh, have any questions? It’s just – you look really nervous.”

I get all awkward and stammer something out about how this is my first time, I’ve never joined a gym before. The nervous laughter hovers uncomfortably. I make a joke, something about those having those pesky first day gym anxieties! She smiles, somewhere between genuine confusion and gentle patronization. “I mean, that’s not really a thing, but –“

I make it twenty-five minutes on the treadmill. I have worn my favorite red tank top. Four minutes in, the tank top and my face are indistinguishable. I’m surrounded, like a really ominous moment in an Animal Planet documentary, by incredibly muscular, panting, sweating people. Surrounded on all sides. The rhythm of the machines is terrifying. I hate everything about this.  Is this how treadmills are supposed to work? I’m the only one, save the elderly gentleman with the moustache, who is using the handle grips. I am certain I will fall off, causing grievous personal injury to myself and others. Is it too late to revisit the part of the contract where I said I wouldn’t sue anyone if that happened?

In twenty-five minutes I traveled just over a mile and a half and I want to die but I can’t because everyone would see me.

But it’s okay because I saved the pool for last.

And I make it to the locker room and I wriggle my ass into my last surviving one-piece and I smell the chlorine and ok, I’m ok. I know this. I can do this. Here we go.

There is one other person already in the water. She’s approximately eighty years old. Yesss. Bathing cap, black swimsuit with tiny attached skirt. I have a brief fantasy of making new best swimming friends with Sweet Older Lady. Tuesdays With Dottie: Lessons From The Pool. I’ll make her cookies, she’ll talk me into taking aqua-aerobics with Derek. I smile, hop in, make it about a hundred feet, and feel like my lungs are going to explode. I hang onto the concrete lip for dear life.


Old Lady Swimsuit gives me massive side-eye, and can’t contain her grin as she proceeds to outpace me for the next fifteen minutes. She’s still going strong as I heave myself up the ladder and slink away, defeated.



Day Two starts out rough. You guys. You GUYS! Orange Is The New Black is the new Netflix Original series, and it just dropped and it’s awesome, and …. oh, jesus. Okay. Okay, fine.

It takes me a good two hours of psyching myself up and at least thirty minutes of sucking in my stomach in front of the mirror, but I finally get out the door. And I go in and I’m grumpy but I’m determined and I head straight downstairs and I get down there prepared to kick Old Lady Swimsuit’s ass and –

The pool is empty.

It’s just me.

And for thirty minutes, that’s all it is. No lifeguard. No gym employee. Just me, and the pool. It’s a tiny little 50-foot deal, buried deep in the basement of this South Philly gym, no towel racks or amenities or anything. Just me, some water, and the hum of the intake system.

And for those thirty minutes, I am happier than I have been in a long time. Breaststroke? Floppy and sloppy. Backstroke? Slammed my head into the wall. Butterfly? Looked like a manatee trying to signal an airplane. But I did it. Was it pretty? Hell no. Was it kind of awesome? Yeah. Maybe a little. It was kind of awesome.

And I’m typing this, the evening of Day Two, still not sure that I’ll want to go back tomorrow. Even after the shower my hair still feels brittle and my skin feels itchy and I can’t shake the feeling that there’s now water buried so deep in my eardrum that it’ll lurk there for years and then suddenly leak into my brain when I least expect it.  Am I going to want to go back tomorrow? No. Probably not.

But I’m going to do my fucking best to try.

*For the record, Whoever Started That Rumor Sometime Around July 2002: That’s seriously all we did down there was kiss. I promise. I was way too freaked out by the entire idea of sex, plus it smelled like chlorine and I didn’t want to get foot fungus. So, you know, JUST TO SET THAT RECORD STRAIGHT.

Image Image

Sidebar: HELP I should be going to bed right now and instead I can’t stop google image searching “synchronized swimming.” I’m SO TORN between how incredibly athletic and difficult I know this sport to be, and how incredibly stupid ALL OF THOSE PICTURES LOOK.

36 thoughts on “I Was A High School Lifeguard (And Other Truths That Now Make Me Feel Fat)

  1. I’m that little old lady! Only I’m 71. And three or four years ago when I started swimming laps, I could only do four without whistling for the gurney! Then when four was doable without a stroke, I added a lap. Then two. Finally, I was doing the mile – 44 laps (yes, I know that’s all the way up and all the way back- counting at every stroke – one, one, one, one, one, and back – one and a half, one and a half, one and a half, one and a half, and then two, two … up to 33 and a half, 33 and a half, and finally, 44. 44. 44. And it takes me an hour. I’m in the pool at 10 after 7 a.m. and almost done at 8 when my little 93 year old mother comes out to do her exercises. At 8:30 we’re both DONE and we go sit in the hot tub for ten minutes. Then she goes home and I go home and we meet again at lunch time. Here’s the other thing. It doesn’t cause weight loss unless you change the way you eat. My first three years, I hoped for some trimming – I got up to 195, according to the doc’s scales (wrong, I’m sure). A few weeks ago to support a friend I went on her “liver shrinking diet” to get her ready for lap band surgery and lost 16 lbs in three weeks. But my suit is still snug. I feel better. But nothing is easy about getting and staying in shape and nothing is fast. But welcome to the pool. Swimming laps is like a meditation to me. I am addicted. Thanks for your blog! I really love it.

  2. Love the tag…feeling blobby. Yes, try being a menopausal woman being told in yoga class that the class has been especially designed for you that day. That is truly feeling blobby.

    I envy people who can swim. Despite taking several sessions of swimming lessons as an adult and enjoying aqua aerobics immensely sadly I will never be Esther Williams. You however, have time my dear. Happy paddling!

  3. I was a lifeguard too, many years ago, and I know what you mean. I have a pool in my yard, and I spend a lot more time jogging and aqua aerobicizing than actually swimming, but I’m hoping to change that. The thought of you going to the gym to swim awes me. At this point I wouldn’t be brave enough! Keep it up, though, and good luck.

  4. Ha! “Like a manatee signaling an airplane”…that about covers my form when getting back in the pool every couple of years. You have inspired me to get my ass to the gym for the first time in about 6 months. Time for me to signal some planes!

  5. At least you have figured out how to watch original series on Netflix. I was soooo excited to know netflix was putting Arrested Developement back on and I sat down to watch on the day it was supposed to be on to discover I had no fucking idea how to watch the damn series since only reruns were posted. Is it a day?? A time?? How the fuck should I know if I don’t get stupid people instructions. If you sacrifice the gym tomorrow, feel awesome that you conquered this phenomenon known as the neflix original series and how to watch it on the damn site. That’s like finding a sasquach and chaining it to your basement and teaching it not to break your house. It’s that elusive!!

  6. Your blog is absolutely amazing! My favourite blog for sure! Also, I’m the exact same when it comes to a gym. I’m only 17 but I am obsessed with personal fitness but I cannot STAND working out with tons of others who like they’ve all won a gold at the Olympics. It’s just far too intimidating, I panic….ugh I hate it so I try and workout at home instead with like fitness dvds etc.

  7. As someone who forcibly turned herself into a gym-goer two years ago, that memory of being paralyzed in bed because you don’t want to go is still very fresh, but I guarantee if you make it just two or three weeks of going consistently, it will become an easy habit! Good luck!! 🙂

  8. Okay, first, your blog rocks.

    Second, I’m so impressed with people who go to the gym. I wasn’t even athletic enough as a kid to be a lifeguard – I was a strong swimmer until we reached diving. “Sorry, you want me to throw myself headfirst towards the ground which will hopefully be water when I get there? I’M OUT.” To this day I cannot dive. I’m also too pale to rock a lifeguard tan. I’d be Zoidberg instead. Thank you, German/Irish heritage.

    I also hate working out alone, running, gym machines, and having strange people probably judging my sad unathletic deathly pale attempts at physical activity. So instead, I joined classes: specifically, CrossFit and Krav Maga. That way, we’re all in it together, dying, sweating, and generally being insanely awesome.

    Also, as shitty as it is, “You can’t outrun your fork,” and “Healthy bodies are made in the gym, not the kitchen,” and all that great shit. 80-90% of your appearance is diet-based. Unless you’re The Oatmeal, who eats ALL THE THINGS and does ultra marathons. If you’re not familiar with his comic, they’re always epic. Here’s the one on running: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running

    Also, previous-commenter-Athena’s a liar (no offense, Goddess). I’ve been doing CrossFit for over a year, and anytime there’s running involved in the workout, my whole face looks like Rudolph’s nose.

    • Shit, I messed that up. “Healthy bodies are made in the kitchen, not the gym.” Screw you, health facts.

  9. Your blog is freaking hysterical!! Dutch the gym and do beachbody at home, then you can look as ridiculous as ever and only you will know. :). But then you may not have as good of stories! Thanks for the morning laugh!

  10. Ahh, I love this post. I’m a total jocked-out gymrat and I can totally relate, as I still remember the herculean effort it used to require to go to the gym or go for a run. It took a while but now it’s a habit that’s just part of my life, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

    “one of the swim team girls with big ripped shoulders and permanent goggle ridges on my eyebrows.”

    This makes me feel better about the fact that I rock an indented raccoon mask for two hours after every session in the pool. It’s embarrassing but oh well, what can I do. I’m not going to stop swimming, that’s for sure.

  11. awesome blog 🙂 and well done for going swimming…I am very poor at swimming, I have yet to add it to my 365 exercise deal!
    Do not be intimidated by the gym types…I am short rounded (overweight but not ridiculously so) girl with unruly hair and a tendency to turn up at the gym in a t-shirt with land rovers on and I have to stare down the “heavy lifting poser” types every time I go into the free weights area of my gym!
    Also treadmills terrify me! i think i am going to slip and fall off the back in a heap. I use the elliptical thingies and do High intensity bike sprint intervals it doesn’t make you any less red but it is less scary and over quicker 😀

  12. It’s awesome when you find the physical activity that just “clicks” for you. I don’t really have the time/ability (for a variety of reasons) for cycling as much as I want to (my nirvana sport), so I run instead because it’s uber efficient for staying in shape. I almost always run outside, though, because monotonous treadmills suck.

    Oh, and I’ve been running for over 10 years and my face still coordinates with boiled lobsters when I’m done. Every. Single. Time. The trick is to not give a shit what anyone else thinks about your appearance – a skill that also took me years to perfect.

    Love your blog 🙂 Good luck with sticking it out on the swimming.

  13. As a runner who was once asked to drop out of an adult swim class because I was unable to grasp the concept of exhaling into the water, I suspect my feelings toward the pool were similar to yours toward the treadmill.

    I wouldn’t even attempt to learn to swim again until a few months ago, when I was hurt and couldn’t run or do anything like it. I still really suck — I can only make it one length of the pool before I panic and need a break — but I keep telling myself, “At least I’m not afraid to try anymore.”

    But, if swimming’s your thing — and it sounds like it is — keep doing that! (And if you really want to run/walk, wait until it’s not so hot and do it outside. Treadmills stink.)

  14. I attempted to “exercise” two days ago. I barely made it through the 7 (YES 7!) exercises. I thought i might die side planking on a wall. i swear it! The one minute squat jump bullshit: hell no. I did 5 of them. maybe 5 seconds top. Today, 2 DAYS LATER, i swear to the heavens, i can not move. Everything hurts. I have to “exercise” again today. I am currently eating a donut to help me cope with this. :]

  15. LOVE this post, I was also a lifeguard and swimming instructor for those same 5 years. I took intro synchronized swimming and then of course was qualified to teach the same course, lol. Just wait until you are 44, then you will realize how out of shape you are now compared to then. Keep at it and keep writing!

  16. I love to swim and run and I hate the gym. I’m not going to pay tons of money a month just to look at over-muscly men flex. Swimming and running for me gives me clarity and control. And thanks Snowfox Bandit for linking the Oatmeal comic, I love this comic! “Don’t be a baked potato, be a person”

  17. Curse you! I’ve just wasted over an hour looking at synchro swimming photos…which led to videos…which led to videos of rhythmic gymnastics. Youtube is evil too. Did you know that Synchronized walking is a real activity? Craziness.

  18. I just watched the Fina aquatic championships when I was in Barcelona – yes, we spent quite a lot of time in our hotel room eating in our beds and watching TV – don’t judge me, we were exhausted – and we saw so much awesomely impressive but equally hilarious synchronized swimming. And did you know that there is an individual synchronized swimming event? As in, one person doing a routine? Only synchronized with the music, not another person? Also, what do they put in their hair to make it shiny and not move at all?

    • Girl. I would never judge you for that. Also, ready for the grossness? It’s GELATIN. My mother and I would have to buy packets of Knox Gelatin at the grocery store and it would be this creepaziod team activity, slicking one another’s hair up with powdered animal bones or ox feet or whatever’s in that shit. I later discovered that the janitors at our community pool despised us because they’d have to clean up hair-coated jello blobs from the shower drains at night. (Come to think of it, that’s an incredibly plausible explanation for why the team disbanded. I mean, that, and also we were pretty terrible).

  19. This is gold, as usual. Is it bad that I can relate to this more than I imagined I would? Minus the lifeguard bit- I instead sis a swimming course with a personal trainer for a week and had to wear a red swimsuit cut so high that I called it the “crotch-hoiker”. Basically, I was Pamela Anderson crossed with a whale.

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