For Craig Robinson, the last straw was the interruption of his morning lap swim workout.
The lifeguard on duty that day in March had to use the restroom, which meant Robinson, a retired physician’s assistant and avid swimmer, had to get out of the pool, walk to a bench and wait.
“There wasn’t any coverage,” Robinson, 69, said. “When they were done, we got back in the water. It was pretty acute and clear this was a big problem.”
The Northglenn Recreation Center, where Robinson swims, had been struggling for months to keep its lifeguard chairs staffed full-time. Rec center leaders had shortened the operating hours of the community pool to help make do.
During the bathroom intermission, Robinson and the other lap swimmers’ frustrations boiled over and, together, they had a stroke of genius. Why shouldn’t the group, all retirees in their late 60s, apply to become lifeguards themselves?
What started out as a half-joke quickly morphed into a legitimate idea for how to solve their problem, Robinson said.
“It doesn’t have to be teenagers and college kids,” Robinson said. “We can help the community and help ourselves.”
Robinson is now part of a small group of senior citizens in Northglenn that has trained to help with a statewide lifeguard shortage affecting Colorado pools. Recreation departments across the state have hundreds of open guarding jobs, citing a decline in applications for the seasonal gig.
The shortage has meant cities had to shorten hours at public swimming pools last summer and, in some cases, close pools altogether for the season. Lifeguards are a required presence at most large public pools under state law.
The 'Immortals' had to re-learn skills with each other's support
To help avoid the same problems this year, Robinson and five other seniors in Northglenn began the interview process to start guarding themselves.
The group of retirees, which nicknamed itself the “Immortals” after Marvel’s "Eternals" movie, applied through the rec center’s traditional job portal. Robinson remembers interviewing with a staffer half his age.
The interviewer asked if he’d ever faced an ethical challenge in his life. Robinson remembers laughing.
“When you're asking a 69-year-old medical professional who's a retired lieutenant colonel from the Army, it's like, okay, ‘What do you really wanna know?’” he said.
After the group passed their initial interviews, they went through the standard curriculum. It involves a safety class, swim tests and physical drills meant to simulate rescuing a drowning human.
Gabe Fabian, a retired sales and customer service professional, remembers head-first diving as the scariest skill she had to re-learn.
“I just wasn't used to doing it anymore,” she said.
After a few attempts, the 69-year-old was able to dive head first and retrieve a heavy brick at the deep end of the Northglenn pool. It helped have fellow seniors in her class, she said.
“It was outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “It worked out well because we had encouragement from each other.”
'As a retired person, we feel like we’re contributing somehow to something, which I really like'
Once they passed their certification course, the Immortals became official lifeguards employed by the city of Northglenn. Bosses passed out official lifeguard gear, including branded t-shirts, float tubes and, of course, a whistle.
Each of the seniors agreed to take one or two morning guard shifts during the week, so the pool could stay open for early-morning swimmers. That commitment requires opening the pool at 4:50 a.m. each day and working a 6- to 8-hour shift, monitoring lap swimmers, a water slide and free swim activities.
Leaders of the rec center have been thrilled by their presence so far. The extra staffing will help keep community pools open for the summer at full capacity, said Rich Condo, a city councilman for Northglenn, who is also an avid swimmer.
“There’s a level of commitment to wanting to help the community that’s admirable,” Condo said. “I have every confidence that these people, regardless of age, are all capable and qualified to come to my rescue, God forbid, if I have a problem in the water.”
Being on staff at the rec center has been surprisingly fun for the retirees, said Al Hooper, a retired social minister with the Archdiocese of Denver. Hooper, who also worked as aquatics director of the city of Northglenn in the 80s, is credited with getting the Immortals group organized.
“I think we all enjoy the interaction with the younger workers and vice versa,” Hooper said. “As a retired person, we feel like we’re contributing somehow to something, which I really like.”
Other Front Range rec centers are diving in, too
Other rec center leaders across the Front Range have tried a number of methods to increase lifeguard hiring. Many have raised pay, made scheduling more flexible and upped benefits, such as free rec center membership.
Many communities are also offering free certification courses thanks to a state grant program that covers the costs, which can add up to hundreds of dollars per person. Gov. Jared Polis in May announced an expansion to the grant program.
Boulder and Denver rec center leaders say the changes, along with word of mouth about guarding jobs, have helped them recruit large classes of guards for the coming season. High school and college-age applicants take up the bulk of that effort, but seniors are eligible as well, said Tim Stabbe, aquatics recreation supervisor for the city of Boulder’s recreation department.
“Everyone is welcome and it’s a great summer job for people with flexible schedules,” Stabbe said.
'You have different limitations when you're 60 and 70, but you still have something to offer'
Northglenn’s Immortals believe their success could be replicated in other Front Range communities with lifeguard shortages.
“The solution was right in front of us,” Hooper, the retired social minister, said. “Many retirees have swimming skills. They’re good in the water and capable of doing this.”
There are a few downsides to the job, according to Robinson. There are some physically challenging tasks, like moving long, heavy lane lines to one side of the pool to make room for aquatics classes.
“It’s pretty easy to get pulled in if you’re not careful,” Robinson said as he yanked the lines on a recent morning. “It can tear the flesh off your hand if you’re not careful.”
The pay isn’t that bad — around $17 dollars an hour in Northglenn and many rec centers.
Robinson only works around seven hours a week, and it’s worth it to see the community come out and safely enjoy the water. It also gives him a sense of pride in his age, he said.
“There are limitations, but everybody has limitations,” he said. “If you're 30, you have limitations. You have different limitations when you're 60 and 70, but you still have something to offer.”
Be a barista, a chef, a landscaper – just find something that gets you going, Robinson said. He, for one, is happy ending his day with a dip.
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