Stories from the Deep End

Older lifeguards bring a lifetime of experience to Hendersonville Pools
By: Lee Stevens

Lifeguards Arielle Emmett (left) and Sandy McNeil join YMCA aquatics coordinator Jerry Miller (center).
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Swimming pools are synonymous with summer. The sparkling blue water, the smell of hot dogs from the snack bar, the shrill lifeguard’s whistle when someone’s caught running or playing rough. Just as swimming is a rite of summer, lifeguarding is sometimes a teen’s first job, in high school and in the summers beyond senior year.

But this summer at the Hendersonville Family YMCA’s indoor pool and at outdoor Patton Pool (also managed by the Y), three aquatics staffers are seniors by age, rather than by grade in school. At a time when the availability of teens is more limited, the trio of Jerry Miller, Arielle Emmett, and Sandy McNeil find lifeguarding to be more a calling than a summer job, and a continuation of life-long interests and goals.

Miller, the YMCA aquatics coordinator, is 69. He brings 52 years of water-safety experience to his duties — and, in fact, he has now come full circle, since he started his working life as a lifeguard. These days, in addition to being a lifeguard and swimming instructor, he also teaches both swimming-instructor certification and lifeguard certification. 

“Lifeguarding is now more than life saving,” he explains. “It’s treated as a profession, with training that includes increased physical requirements and a focus on professional standards.” 

He enjoys teaching and all aspects of water safety, including working with his teen lifeguard colleagues. Poolside, though, there are advantages to being an older lifeguard. “Adults whose behavior needs correcting are more likely to listen to me,” he says, “than a teen lifeguard.” 

Older lifeguards and swimming instructors bring decades of experience to swimming safety.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

There are challenges, though, at any age. Miller notes sun exposure as a disadvantage, as well as the need to stay focused at all times, given that lifeguarding can be monotonous. 

Emmett, who’s also 69, moved to the area a year ago and joined the YMCA in order to swim. But then she saw a notice about the lifeguard-certification class and enrolled this past February. While she’s worked as a journalist for the past 40 years, she was also a long-distance swimmer for most of her adulthood. At this point, she sees her lifeguard position as a way of giving back at a time of transition in her life. She notes that her teen colleagues are very respectful and competent, but adds her own observation about the pluses of being an older lifeguard. 

“I’m more vigilant about surveying the water and surrounding pool area,” says Emmett. “I watch people interact, and I’m more likely than the teens to speak up when I see something going on.” An example is the rule that parents of children under age seven must be within an arm’s length of their child in the pool at all times. In some instances, she has to call the parent back into the pool to comply with the rule. 

 Emmett also admits the monotony factor, which she counters by telling herself constantly to maintain her attention.  

 McNeil, 68, was a competitive swimmer from age 12 through college. Like Miller, she was also a lifeguard as a teen and a young adult. And like Emmett, she moved to Hendersonville a year ago and joined the Y to work out. One day, she ran into Miller and asked if they needed lifeguards. When he answered yes, she enrolled in his certification class and found it to be more time consuming — with both an online and in-person component — than what she remembers from her original training. It was also more rigorous.

Though she’s only been on duty locally since September 2021, McNeil brings her life experience to the job: She is well aware of all that can go wrong in the water.

“I saw a couple of people have heart attacks at the YMCA when I was young,” she recalls. Compared to lifeguards who’ve logged less time in the water, “I’m more ready to respond based on what I’ve seen,” she explains.

She echoes Miller and Emmett about the job’s primary challenge being monotony. Even on slow days, though, she keeps busy by walking around, chatting to members, checking the pool chemicals, and watching people swim — especially when they’re good swimmers. 

YMCA of WNC Senior Executive Director Jessica Hendrix expresses gratitude for the service of these older lifeguards — especially in a year when membership and swim-lesson enrollments are up. (And these three are not even the oldest staff members — swim instructor Pat Dockendorf, 95, wins that honor.)

Hendrix praises “their availability, their experience in the work force,” and, perhaps most importantly, “their communication skills.”

Patton Pool at Patton Park, 114 East Clairmont Drive, Hendersonville, is open through Sept. 5 (828-595-9952). The indoor pool at Hendersonville Family YMCA, 810 6th Ave. West, is open year round; 

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