Meet the Unlikely Heroes: Grandparent Lifeguards Defying Age to Save Lives!

In the midst of rookie recruits supervising New York’s pools, a minimum of four were born during the Eisenhower administration. However, all of them successfully cleared the challenging lifeguard examination, and their services are now essential for the city.

On a late afternoon at the Jesse Owens Playground pool in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area, the temperature soared into the mid-80s. Children, some sporting vibrant pink neon swimsuits while others wore white cotton tank tops, flocked to the water. Playful splashing matches ensued, accompanied by the rhythmic beats of music from a nearby block party.

In the midst of this lively scene, a sharp whistle pierced the air. Positioned in his lifeguard chair, Daniel Kalmann pointed out a small child moving too swiftly across the wet pavement. Kalmann stood out among the young swimmers, dressed in orange shorts and an orange bucket hat, appearing like a grandfather – notably older than the rest. Sporting a scruffy white goatee and tattoos detailing his life’s journey on his sun-kissed skin, he radiated the aura of a seasoned lifeguard with years of protective service.

Ironically, this marked his inaugural summer in the lifeguard’s role.

“Some view me as the stern authority figure with my whistle,” he quipped. “I’m the newcomer here.”

Until this point, the oldest rookie lifeguard in the city had been 64 years old. However, to tackle the staffing shortage, the Parks Department intensified its recruitment efforts. Consequently, 183 individuals joined the notoriously demanding training program this summer. Among them, Mr. Kalmann, certified and hired in June, joined four other rookie lifeguards surpassing the age of 64. Notably, at 69, he wasn’t the oldest recruit. (In Manhattan, there’s a 70-year-old lifeguard who prefers to stay low-profile.)

Each of these older lifeguards had distinct motives for embracing this responsibility. Although their pay exceeded $21 per hour, they shared a deep sense of duty that compelled them to enlist during a critical scarcity of lifeguards, which endangered the accessibility of the city’s pools and beaches. “I love it,” Mr. Kalmann affirmed. “No device on me, just looking, looking, looking.”

The scarcity predicament, which many other cities also grapple with, primarily stems from inadequate compensation, a demanding qualifying test, and a general lack of enthusiasm for what’s perceived as a summer job suitable for teenagers. The lockdowns in 2020 further exacerbated this issue, causing seasonal workers to seek more stable employment. Combined with New York’s ongoing negotiations with the lifeguard union for a new contract, the city commenced its swimming season in May with just 480 lifeguards, a far cry from the usual requirement of around 1,000, according to a parks department spokesperson.

Mr. Kalmann had some awareness of these challenges. Last year, he observed sections of McCarren Park’s pool cordoned off during a visit from Maspeth, Queens, with his family. However, it wasn’t until his sister-in-law nudged him that he considered taking action. Having scaled back his credit card processing business and left his role as a bicycle tour guide in March, he was drawn to lifeguarding due to his affinity for extreme athletic challenges that most perceive as somewhat audacious.

More profoundly, he felt a calling to serve – a lifelong virtue instilled by his parents, who were Jewish Holocaust refugees. “At a certain age, there are limited opportunities to make a substantial impact,” he reflected. “Here, I believe I can at least make a modest difference.”

Mr. Kalmann’s upbringing encompassed growing up as one of four boys in the Netherlands. At 19, he ventured to New York for a theater internship and a taste of adventure. It was July 1973, and he promptly engaged in a heated exchange with a taxi driver – an encounter he relished. Within a month, he recounted an encounter with John Lennon outside Phebe’s Tavern on the Bowery, a poignant memory given that it was his 20th birthday, and the Beatle extended his birthday wishes.

A few years later, during a camping expedition, he stumbled upon three distressed brothers struggling in a river. Kalmann intervened, rescuing two siblings while the third tragically vanished beneath the water’s surface. He made multiple attempts to locate the missing individual but to no avail. “I exerted tremendous effort,” he shared somberly. “I simply lacked the necessary skills.”

That incident haunted him for years, causing him to avoid water for nearly a decade. The recollection remained dormant until his sister-in-law’s remark stirred something within him. “I yearned to rectify my inability at that time,” he admitted.

Prospective lifeguards must triumph over a rigorous qualification test to earn a slot in the four-month training regimen, designed to prepare them for the ultimate assessments. Over approximately three weekly hours, they become proficient in water rescue techniques, first aid, and CPR. It was during this phase that Kalmann crossed paths with Mary Jacobus, a 65-year-old public school social worker on the brink of retirement, and Liang Sung, a 66-year-old who sought occupation following the loss of his Chinese-language news position in 2020. They trained alongside 81 others, many of whom were teenagers. The intense workouts and pool training proved to be demanding.

“We’re quite advanced in age for this role,” Mr. Sung remarked.

Initially, Ms. Jacobus faced apprehension from friends who considered the endeavor perilous, highlighting that she’d be investing more hours as a lifeguard compared to her role as a social worker. Nevertheless, akin to Mr. Kalmann, she was motivated by a deeper calling. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she grew up participating in volunteer endeavors before embarking on a career in social work. “I simply wished to be of assistance,” she affirmed.

Amidst training, Ms. Jacobus overheard young trainees discussing upcoming Regents exams—an indication of their ongoing high school journey. “They’re traversing a significant phase of life,” she mused.

Though all participants showcased prowess in the water, the older recruits recognized the impending physical rigors of training. Ms. Jacobus, who had swum since her childhood in Minnesota, immersed herself in numerous lakes and had served as a lifeguard during her youth. Mr. Sung, hailing from a coastal town in China, regaled stories of harvesting sea creatures from the ocean floor. He still regularly swims at Orchard Beach in the Bronx.

On a particular morning, Mr. Kalmann and Mr. Sung alternated in rescuing one another in a sizable pool at Flushing Meadows. A younger lifeguard hastened over, interrupting to inquire about their well-being. “I informed him, ‘We’re training to become like you,'” Mr. Kalmann chuckled. “He regarded us with a look that seemed to ask, ‘These old guys?'”

Following 16 weeks of intensive training, they each confronted the arduous final swim test, renowned for its formidable nature. To accommodate more candidates, the city extended the swim duration from 35 to 45 seconds for a distance of 50 yards. While Mr. Sung effortlessly met the revised time criteria, both Mr. Kalmann and Ms. Jacobus required multiple attempts. In Mr. Kalmann’s case, he even shaved off his goatee to gain a few additional seconds. “I reasoned, that’s a drag, isn’t it?” he quipped. “My kids refused to speak to me for two days afterward.”

Now, they are among the 800 individuals charged with safeguarding New York City’s swimmers.

On her initial day overseeing the P.S. 20 pool in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, Ms. Jacobus espied a small girl drifting toward the 3-foot deep end, her nose barely above the water’s surface. “She exhibited a look of panic,” Ms. Jacobus recalled. She gently guided the girl to safety and inquired whether she wished to give it another try. Observing the same anxiety in the girl’s mother, the child vehemently protested: “No! No! No!”

“That little girl never returned,” Ms. Jacobus lamented, recounting her sole rescue experience thus far. “The remainder of my duty mainly involves handing out Band-Aids and tending to minor injuries.”

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