Lifeguards are hunky superheroes, there to keep you safe and rescue helpless children. You’ll be hard pressed to find a lifeguard in popular media without a bulging six pack and dashing shades, sprinting across the beach in glorious slow-motion.
Of course, you might be more inclined to remember lifeguards as you saw them back at the local swimming pool. I swam competitively, and lifeguards seemed as pointless as they were lazy. Sitting there doing nothing but swinging their whistles around and refusing to let you poolside before your exact, allotted time. Lifeguards seemed permanently irritated by the world around them – muttering grumps who should be glad to get paid to sit there and do nothing.
The reality is somewhere between these two extremes.
‘All available lifeguards please report to poolside’.
The dreaded call. Maybe you’re trying to eat lunch, shoving whatever food you remembered to pack into your mouth. Maybe you’re having to set up a body pump class, or lugging punching bags around storage rooms. Perhaps you’re forcing yourself to smile and nod as a customer gets way too emotional about a problematic badminton net. You have to drop it all.
And it’s always to clean up some child’s poo.
Lifeguards are trained for Baywatch, but the reality couldn’t be further from it. Breaks aren’t breaks in a leisure centre environment. There’s always something to be done, and never enough time to do it. The real struggle is remaining on-guard for the extremely important job you have to do – keeping the inhabitants of the pool safe – whilst sweating your face off doing the mundane stuff that goes into running a leisure centre in the first place. It’s more vital than many people think – a lifeguard can be prosecuted for all sorts of crimes for negligence. You’re ready to do a noble service on minimum wage, but are immediately thrown into situations you’re horrendously unequipped for.
Yet it’s not all 6am starts and 11pm closes, smiling and nodding whilst being abused by arsehole customers (service workers can relate). There are genuine connections to be made. One of my sessions was for elderly folk, many of whom seemed delighted to stop halfway through a length and have a chat. I had some favourites, I’ll admit. One old boy came along and chatted to me every week about the football – he was an Everton fan who deemed Ross Barkley overrated. I actually found myself keeping up-to-date with the Premier League and whatever fixtures were happening to feign expertise. I learned about his sporadic trips north to Goodison Park with his stepson whenever he got the chance, whilst I told him of the old days, invading the pitch at the Madejski after promotion. He claimed they couldn’t possibly have been old days, as it was only about 2 years ago and I was 17 years of age.
The job gave me a weird feeling of satisfaction. Not from diving in and saving drowning kids, but from ensuring I was doing well for the people relying on me. It’s the kind of feeling you get when you put suncream on but the weather is cloudy, or when you clean out the crumbs from your toaster before it becomes a serious issue.
Gamifying these specific stresses would be fascinating to me, and few other games have put players in the shoes of a routine job worker in an extreme, ever-changing, situation. The simultaneous mundanity and intensity of lifeguarding isn’t often explored in a non-glamorised manner – and the potential is huge.