As Brandon Gibson remembers it, the little girl was a year old when an incident in a backyard pool led to her death 12 months later from complications.
He was around 10 years old, and even though he didn’t witness the tragedy that hit family friends, he saw its effect.
“Everyone that knew that little girl . . . I just remember as a kid seeing the damage it did,” he says.
“That was always a driving factor for me to become a lifeguard. From that young age, I wanted to be a strong swimmer; I wanted to be able to prevent things like that from happening.”
Now 24, Gibson is the city of Albuquerque’s aquatics program coordinator at Highland Pool, 400 Jackson St. S.E.
His journey into the world of lifeguarding began with learning to stabilize twisted spines, protect broken bones, breathe breath back into a stilled chest, pull limp bodies from the bottom of a pool.
It’s a world of authoritarian whistles, of panicking kids plucked from rippling water’s soft claws.
A world where the benefits of a golden cinnamon tan don’t go unnoticed. A world of chlorine tests, shouted orders to speeding children in sinking swim trunks, heart-racing emergencies and lifeguard camaraderie so tight that the word family describes it better than friendship.
It’s a world 15-year-old Megan Korovlev was preparing to enter one Friday morning because, as she says, “It’s better than working at McDonald’s.”
On the fifth and final day of Korovlev’s basic lifeguard training at Highland Pool, she’s busy saving lives.
Well, one life – that of her training partner, who agreed to be the drowning victim during an exercise that has Korovlev’s dark hair wet with repeated descents into the water.
There’s a finesse to hauling a limp body to the surface. One hand grasps the victim’s chin, the other the back of the neck and head. As the two rise from below, the rescuer spirals so the victim emerges with his or her mouth facing the curved ceiling of the pool.
Execute wrong, and instructor Ashlee Hicks – who is also pool manager – yells gentle criticism through the chlorine-scented air chortling with whirring vents.
“That was pretty good, Megan,” Hicks cries out as Korovlev comes to the surface, eyes blinking. “You’ve still got to get that turn faster.”
Korovlev nods and swims to the back of the line of recruits hanging on the pool’s edge with elbows and forearms.
Next she’ll drop a long, wooden board into the water and pull it out with a “victim” strapped in. That will teach her how to handle spinal injuries.
The course has taught her CPR and first aid. At its end, written and practical tests check a student’s readiness for duty.
Ace those, and the lifeguards-to-be have even more training from the city specific to the needs of its pools, explains Roben Henry, aquatics director with the aquatics section of the Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department.
If Korovlev passes, she’d like to work at the West Mesa Aquatic Center, a sprawling complex near Coors Boulevard and I-40 that includes slides, diving boards and indoor and outdoor pools, one of them sized for Olympians.
It’s where 16-year-old Joshua Dominguez got his start lifeguarding and met his girlfriend, Danielle Gutierrez.
A little after 6 a.m., a time when Albuquerque’s streets are fuzzy with the gray mist of night, Dominguez scrapes his rubber flip-flops – decorated with U.S. stars and stripes – across the asphalt parking lot of the West Mesa Aquatic Center.
He stops his tall, thin, 16-year-old frame next to the car of fellow lifeguard and 18-year-old friend Juan Rodriguez, who gives Dominguez a groggy hello and fatigued shrug of his athletic shoulders.
“If he doesn’t show up by 6:15, I’m heading home,” Rodriguez says half-seriously. “I’m tired.”
“He” is the head lifeguard, in this case a she by the name of Emily Arzate. She pulls up before Rodriguez can make good on his threat.
She unlocks the front door and the two young men head through the pale green locker rooms toward the guard room, a small chamber between the pool’s public hallways and administrative offices.
If the pool was a body, the guard room is its heart. Staff members on break sink into its couch – one cushion’s edge splitting to show off a stripe of yellow foam – and make jokes, tell stories of their weekends, opine on their favorite pools to work, snack and evaluate the funniest way to say a colleague’s name.
A dry erase board has messages such as, “Pick up your stuff before you leave!!” and “If anyone wants extra hours, talk to head guard.” A to-go cup of coffee stands in front of a toaster. Next to it is a well-pillaged tub of Animal Cracker cookies. Tan, floppy hats, mostly unused, hang from a line of hooks, and a worn chair, with matching worn footrest, sits next to a time clock.
The room, normally light with cheerful lifeguards, transforms in an emergency.
When a guard comes in to bandage a cut, the chamber grows quiet as it shifts into its second role as medical center.
Instead of bouncing and chatting, the lifeguards hold still, eyes on their friend. When her health is assured, smiles return, and the conversation lightens, grows faster. The heart beats again.
Dominguez and Rodriguez emerge from a changing room. Dominguez’s shirt is off, but he wears red shorts with the city’s logo, a fanny pack and a jangling wad of keys attached to a thick, strap necklace with “LIFEGUARD” written across it.
It’s a slow day, and they wait but not for long. Through windows facing the front door, they see a bearded man walk in. He has arrived to use the pool during a couple of morning hours set aside for lap swimmers.
Arzate hands Dominguez a walkie-talkie and he’s off. His sandals thwap, thwap, thwapping against the concrete as he walks to the recently opened indoor, Olympic-sized pool.
The pool is huge, comes with three diving boards. Its undisturbed water stretches from one end of the building to the other like a blue plate of glass.
Before Dominguez takes a perch atop his lifeguard stand, he attends to the morning’s music. Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” soon bounces out, thanks to a PA system microphone, Bose speakers and boombox.
“It sort of keeps us awake,” he says.
The bearded man shows up, and Dominguez mounts the stand. He places a red life preserver – “LIFEGUARD” written across its thick rectangular shape – across his lap.
Up high, slouched forward, eyes stuck to the swimmer’s course, he looks attentive but relaxed.
After 15 minutes, Rodriguez relieves Dominguez. It’s the longest time the city wants its guards to remain at one stand before rotating. Aquatics Director Henry says it’s an antidote to alertness-numbing monotony.
The rapid switching creates a drum-ike flow of personnel. Every 900 seconds, a beat comes in the form of a tap on the shoulder from the incoming lifeguard to the exiting one.
It’s a moment of levity, a bright inhale of change that is rarely jokeless and often marked by the faked intention to toss someone wearing a “Lifeguard” shirt into the pool.
During a break, Dominguez and Rodriguez ride the outdoor water slides, turned off because recreational swimmers aren’t allowed entry for a few hours.
Once Dominguez gets the water flowing, a playful competition begins; at the count of three, each of them grabs the bar above the entrance to the slide and rockets down. The first to emerge rises from the foaming, gurgling water at the base with hands raised victoriously and smiling, if not laughing, in the sunshine.
Final score: Dominguez three; Rodriguez three. Two races were ties.
Next up: cleaning.
Armed with paper towels and window spray, Rodriguez and Dominguez later hunt down every glass panel in the place and wipe.
It’s not an entirely artless act: Dominguez uses his windows as a canvas and his cleaning spray as a brush.
One creation is a devilishly smiling face with diabolically scrunched eyebrows. From inside the main office, Arzate offers this criticism of the large piece: “Josh is crazy,” she says with a laugh.
Cleaning is not typically handled by lifeguards, Henry notes, but teams for the city tackle a wide variety of tasks.
Of course, ensuring swimmers’ safety is their first priority, he says, but the city’s lifeguards also teach classes and perform facility maintenance.
Even with the impressive number of windows, Rodriguez and Dominguez finish quickly and move on to the next task: vengeance.
During a staff party a week earlier, Dominguez’s truck became decorated with toilet paper. Rodriguez found his locker sealed shut with someone else’s lock.
The culprits, which Dominguez recounts with a grin, were his 16-year-old girlfriend and another lifeguard.
Thus when one of the maintenance crew ask what Dominguez and Rodriguez are doing putting toilet paper on the girls’ lockers, Dominguez says, “We’re messing with them for getting us.”
Arzate puts a fast finish to the prank and points out the value of the constant joking and ribbing among the employees: bonding.
The tighter they are as friends, the better they understand each other and the better they can react as a team when an emergency arises, she says.
It becomes apparent why that chemistry is so important later in the afternoon of Dominguez’s day.
It’s 1 o’clock, and children flow down West Mesa’s outdoor slides, one after the other yelping, pinching nostrils and squeezing eyelids shut as they chase fun in an endless circle ending in a frothy pillow of bubbling water that can, on occasion, turn laughter into screams.
Dominguez says it’s pretty regular for kids to panic when they pop out of the water slide – something about the swirling liquid that confuses them.
Hauling one out is classified as a save, and he’s already had 21 this summer.
So it’s no surprise when the signal for a minor emergency – two short reports from a lifeguard’s whistle that cut through the poolside chatter like ear-curling feedback at a rock concert – sounds off.
In seconds, all the lifeguards rise to their feet with whistles in their mouths, bodies taut with alertness.
Their attention zeros in on the source of the distress signal: a lifeguard, his shirt soaked, dragging a coughing girl out of the slides’ landing area.
The girl is fine. Soon, she runs toward one of the plastic white chairs surrounding the pool.
The lifeguards take their seats, and the slides continue to spit out kids.
Heard far more often are single reports of the whistles; their main purpose seems to be interrupting the patter of kids’ too-fast feet in preparation for the age-old warning: Walk. Don’t run.
Gutierrez, posted on a stand near that of her boyfriend Dominguez, blows hers to get the attention of a child diving into the pool. Not more than 3 feet tall, he turns to her with a confused but vaguely guilty expression.
“Hey, make sure you jump feet first,” she says.
“What?” the boy replies.
“Make sure when you jump in, you jump in feet first,” she says.
The boy twists away, his attention racing back to more important tasks: splashing, swirling, swishing, smacking, and diving into and out of the water until joy once again paints a thick grin across his face.
Two days later, a high-pitched, twisting “ohhhh” of sweet appreciation is one of the first things Dominguez’s hungry girlfriend says to him after he walks into a conference room at the aquatics center.
In Dominguez’s hands are two styrofoam boxes containing Gutierrez’s dinner: fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, all made by Col. Sanders.
Dominguez isn’t supposed to be there, isn’t scheduled as Gutierrez is. But his girlfriend wanted help with a water aerobics class beginning at 7 p.m. and he showed up with the meal and a smile.
Gutierrez and two others have an hour before the lessons begin, and they’ve been given the task of making ribbons for the winners of swim meets at the pool.
Gutierrez turns the sewing machine over to Dominguez. The girls hop up, and an impromptu KFC dinner party of lifeguards – friends – begins.
“We’re family,” Gutierrez says, “here at West Mesa.”