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They Started School Afraid of the Water. Now They Are Saving Lives.

NEW YORK — Down at the deep end of Grover Cleveland High School’s aging four-lane pool, two students lie face down in the water, unresponsive.

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They Started School Afraid of the Water. Now They Are Saving Lives.
Corey Kilgannon
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Down at the deep end of Grover Cleveland High School’s aging four-lane pool, two students lie face down in the water, unresponsive.

“OK, get them,” barked a swim teacher, and a group of chatty teenagers in swimsuits went into rescue mode and leapt into the water.

They hooked the “drowning” students — playing victims for a lifesaving drill — around the shoulders to swim them to safety.

“Don’t let them go, never let them go,” yelled the teacher, Chris Sullivan, 44, as the students slid a flat wooden backboard into the water to ease one of the struggling swimmers out.

This was the scene the other day at one of the popular lifeguard training classes at Grover Cleveland, in Ridgewood, Queens — a high school that may not get the public recognition the city’s more prestigious schools enjoy, but that has the distinction of being one of the largest feeders of young lifeguards in New York City.

Equipped with its own working swimming pool, a rare commodity today in New York City public high schools, Grover Cleveland offers lifeguarding classes that lead to Red Cross certification.

Dozens of its students obtain lifeguard jobs every spring and go on to work at city beaches and pools — a remarkable feat, given that most of the students are from neighborhoods not known for turning out swimmers.

Yet, the school has produced more than 300 working lifeguards in the past decade, Sullivan said.

The lifeguard trainees at Grover Cleveland are predominantly students of color, about half of them male and half of them female, and most are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most enter high school as nonswimmers, fearful of the water. But within two years, most are swimming at competitive speeds and can qualify for, and pass, the rigorous training course offered by New York City to become a lifeguard at a city pool or beach.

“For most of these kids, the opportunities to swim are very limited,” said Sullivan, who teaches and coaches swimming at Grover Cleveland. “Most are from lower-income and working-class backgrounds, with struggling parents who can’t afford private swim classes for their kids.”

Jimmy Barrera, 17, from Maspeth, Queens, a junior, said, “When I first came here, I was scared of the water — that’s the truth.”

Now he can swim the 50-yard sprint in under 26 seconds, nearly 10 seconds faster than the 35 seconds the city requires for a certified lifeguard.

Jimmy said he earned $6,000 last summer working at a public pool in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and he hopes to be selected as an ocean lifeguard at Rockaway Beach, Queens, which many young lifeguards covet for its urban “Baywatch” scene.

The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has nearly 1,500 lifeguards working this year, enough to staff its eight beaches, which opened on Memorial Day weekend, as well as its 53 outdoor pools, which open in late June, said the department’s first deputy commissioner, Liam Kavanagh.

But for many years, the city had problems finding enough young swimmers willing and qualified to become lifeguards. Short-handed and forced to close off sections of beaches and shorten pool hours, the city resorted to recruiting lifeguards from the suburbs and even from overseas.

This was the case when Sullivan and Felicia Mair, 35, another swimming coach, took over the high school’s swimming program a dozen years ago.

Both were ocean lifeguards on Long Island and helped start a lifeguard training program at Grover Cleveland. Sullivan, who at the time also coached soccer at the school, urged his soccer players — many of them nonswimmers — to join the swim team and take lifeguarding lessons.

“I threw them all into the pool,” he said. “I told them, ‘Don’t freak out. There’s a prize at the end. You get a lifeguard job and make a lot of money.'”

The lifeguarding class began attracting up to 50 students a year, said Sullivan, explaining that only a handful of schools in the city offer similar training.

This year, more than 25 students gained certification at Grover Cleveland, he said. Most will work at city pools such as McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn and Astoria Pool in Queens, Sullivan said. Others will patrol pools at health clubs and country clubs.

Many of the robust swimming programs once offered by the city’s public high schools had their funding cut during New York’s financial crisis in the 1970s, Kavanagh said. “There are probably fewer swimmers in the public high school system than there were many years ago,” he said.

Kavanagh said he did not have data on which high schools produced the most lifeguards, but added that the schools “remain one of the main sources of lifeguard candidates for our jobs.”

City lifeguard officials keep in contact with high school swimming teachers, coaches and athletic directors and also attend swim competitions to recruit new lifeguard prospects, he said.

First-year city lifeguards earn a minimum of $15 an hour and can work six days a week from June through early September.

“I’ve had kids tell me they made more than their parents for the summer,” Mair said.

Many lifeguarding students at Grover Cleveland said their families and friends never considered swimming a priority. “I had a real fear of the water when I came to school here,” said Leroy Engmann, 16, a junior who emigrated from Ghana when he was 11. “When I told my mother I was training to be a lifeguard, she was worried that I’d be risking my life to save someone else. But the training gave me confidence.”

He learned quickly and improved his endurance enough to swim 440 yards in the seven minutes and 40 seconds necessary to qualify for a pool assignment. He would have to shave off another minute to qualify for a beach assignment.

For Muhammad Rameez, 18, a lanky high school senior, swimming was a new experience when he emigrated two years ago from Pakistan.

“He had the physical attributes but he never saw a pool before,” Sullivan said.

Rameez now swims the 50-yard sprint in 26 seconds. He said he earned $6,000 last summer lifeguarding at Red Hook Pool in Brooklyn, and bought a car.

He practiced a rescue with Dawa Sherpa, 16, a junior from Woodside, Queens, who was also a nonswimmer when he emigrated from Kathmandu three years ago. After two years of training, he can now swim 50 yards in 30 seconds. He said he hopes to put the money he makes at a city pool this summer toward his parents’ household budget.

Emily Aguilar and Jennifer Condo, both 16-year-old juniors from Queens, finished their rescue drills and said they were hoping to join the contingent of students from Grover Cleveland who work at Astoria Pool.

Sullivan, who still works summers as an ocean lifeguard in Long Beach, New York, said he tells his less advantaged students that devoting themselves to training and getting a good job is all about saving lives: others and their own.

“I tell them, ‘This is a life lesson — if you can become a lifeguard here in two years, you can do anything,'” he said. “I say, ‘It’s really about going for your goals and dreams, and not letting anybody tell you no.'”

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