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Long Island

Meet the real heroes of Long Island summers - at a pool or beach near you

On any given day at beaches and pools where Long Islanders escape the heat, lifeguards stand (or sit in lifeguard chairs) ready to dive into the thick of trouble. On Thursday, July 11, a pair of father-and-son lifeguards talked about their love for the lifestyle and keeping it in the family. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Never mind the Avengers or that spidey guy from Queens. Lifeguards are the true superheroes of a Long Island summer.

On any given day at the beaches and pools where Long Islanders escape the heat and workaday world, lifeguards are standing (or sitting atop waterside stands) ready to dive into the thick of trouble. While others may look on, they must leap in to haul swimmers from rip currents or rescue tots from the "deep end" of the kiddie pool.

They even quell the panic brought on by the occasional cry of “Shark!” — although oftentimes the “fin” is a cresting dolphin or a sunfish swimming on its side.

Beyond the heroics, it’s not all “Baywatch” glamour for the sunglass-clad women and men.

For starters, lifeguards have to pass Olympics-style athletic tests. Long Island state parks’ 482 lifeguards — who range from 17 to 71 years old — have to qualify in tests that include swimming 100 yards in 75 seconds or less and running three quarters of a mile in fewer than six minutes. Various town and city lifeguards undergo similar trials to win a place on shore or pool patrol. State, town and city lifeguards must regularly requalify.

“Being a lifeguard is more than just another summer job, it's a serious commitment to your neighbors and fellow swimmers," said Laura Gillen, supervisor of the Town of Hempstead, where 526 lifeguards earn $15 to $30 an hour at 11 beaches and 23 pools. Gillen herself worked as a lifeguard with handicapped swimmers three decades ago at the town’s Camp Anchor in Lido Beach.

At lifeguard stands from western Nassau County to the East End, the whistle and rescue buoy are wielded by high school and college students, teachers on recess and other outstanding swimmers with their summers free. Generation gap-bridging friendships and a feeling of being a part of one big family bring lifeguards back year after year, even after they move off Long Island.

Bruce Meirowitz, 68, still works five days a week at Robert Moses State Park Field 5 although two years ago he and his wife moved from Sound Beach to Newport, Rhode Island, to be near their children and grandchildren.

He began lifeguard duties making $2 an hour as a 17-year-old growing up in Massapequa and continued working summers through college and for 30 years while an art teacher in the Shoreham-Wading River school district.

Meirowitz said he's saved many lives during his career. In the early 1970s, Meirowitz and three other lifeguards received a citation from New York State after suffering injuries saving two fishermen stranded by a rising tide on the Jones Beach West End 2 jetty. As recently as this month, he helped resuscitate a 50-year-old man knocked unconscious by a wave. “There’s nothing better than saving someone’s life like that,” he said.

In his 52nd summer, Meirowitz said he enjoys “sitting side by side” with lifeguards many decades his junior. “I tell them that I have lifeguard shirts that are from before they were born, and I’m still wearing them.”

Here are the stories of five other Long Island lifeguards — from tenderfeet to veterans — who spend their days standing watch at the pool or seaside. 

Lifeguard generations

This summer a fresh but familiar face joined Montauk Downs State Park’s crew of nine pool lifeguards. New recruit Orlando Diaz III, 17, of Bayport, is the second generation of his family working at a state park on Long Island.

His father, Orlando Diaz Jr., 48, a Central Islip High School special-education teacher, is already familiar to generations of swimmers and fellow lifeguards, in his 27th summer at Robert Moses Field 5.

The younger Diaz spent childhood summers soaking up lifeguard skills while at the beach watching his father work. Swimming since he learned to walk, he was inspired to follow in his father’s bare footsteps by “seeing how my dad was able to help people.” Orlando III said he’s glad to have a summer assignment — the Bayport graduate is heading to Stony Brook University in the fall — even if his overnight lodging in trendy Montauk is a tent on the beach at nearby Hither Hills State Park.

“It’s not as bad as you would think,” he said on a recent afternoon while on duty at Montauk Downs. “Every night we go surfing and watch the sunset and look at the stars.” He fishes from a kayak and barbecues the striped bass or blackfish he catches over the campfire.

Orlando Jr. said he’s proud that his son found a spot at a time when lifeguards are earning “a very competitive salary, so you have a lot of people vying for that job.” Even at one of the quieter pools, “You have to be able to swim and swim fast,” he said.

The Diazes are not the only two-generation lifeguards. Twenty other pairs work in the state parks this summer, said Ken Bohman, state parks water safety director.

“The children of lifeguards are often brought up on the water, visiting their parents on the job throughout their childhoods,” Bohman explained.

And there may be more Diazes in the lifeguarding pipeline with two other family members, Emilio, 14, and Sophia, 12, who are both enrolled in the junior lifeguard program at Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh.

Guarding surf and turf

Kerry Giovanniello, 22, of Bellmore, will attend Hofstra Law School this fall after four summers laying down the law as a Long Beach lifeguard. Giovanniello, assigned to the east section of the 3.3-mile city beach, often starts her day playing traffic cop to separate surfers and swimmers.

“There are times where there will be waves coming in that are really nice” on a beach designated for swimmers, Giovanniello said. “We have to be rather aggressive sometimes to get them [surfers] to the right beaches.”

Giovanniello started training when her mother, a former lifeguard, enrolled her in the city’s junior lifeguard program. She won a partial athletic scholarship and competed on the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 swim team at the University at Buffalo, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

She swims competitively with the U.S. Lifesaving Association national team, which traveled last year to an international competition in Fukuoka, Japan.

A typical beach day can turn “crazy with rescues,” Giovanniello said. On a recent Saturday, she and three others in her crew rescued a dozen swimmers from rip currents. “Once we hit the dry sand, one of the women I brought in gave me a big hug and a kiss,” she said.

Giovanniello plans to work as a lifeguard “as long as I can,” especially in a community such as Long Beach. She says the City by the Sea has a “hometown vibe that not many other beaches have. I know all the families sitting on my beach because they are there every single day.”

Teachable moments

“Swimming is a life skill, something everyone should learn," said Marlon Louis, 21, a 2016 Uniondale High School graduate lifeguarding his way through Queens College in Flushing, where he’s studying computer science.

He’s been putting that belief into action for the past five years, giving swimming lessons to area youngsters as part his lifeguard duties at Echo Park, a Hempstead Town aquatic and recreation center in West Hempstead.

Louis, who lives in Uniondale, watches over hundreds of bathers every day in the complex’s 25-yard indoor and outdoor pools.

“The first thing that goes through my head when I see someone in distress is a feeling of adrenaline,” Louis said on a Saturday afternoon. The adrenaline started to pump recently when a young boy dove into the dive tank, swallowed water and began to thrash around. “That’s when I needed to jump in,” Louis said.

His lifesaving skills are most often called upon in the dive tank, when swimmers struggle after misjudging the 10-foot depth. He also trains an eagle eye on the kiddie pool, where he said children sometimes wander off from their parents.

His gentleness was on display during an impromptu swimming lesson with Dylan Huete, 6, who had been splashing around with his father, Daniel, 53.

“Put your arms to the side and belly up,” Louis told Dylan, who obliged by stretching out in the water. The lesson over, Louis sent the boy back to his dad with a little final encouragement.

“Gimme five,” Louis said as the boy’s father looked on proudly. “Good job.”

Eyes on Muscle Beach

Jones Beach veteran lifeguard Tammy McLoughlin, 53, of Merrick, says most Long Islanders have a misconception about her days perched on the main lifeguard stand at Jones Beach Central Mall — better known to beachgoers as Field 4 or Muscle Beach.

“People think this is such an easy job, but it’s not. It’s very busy and challenging,” said McLoughlin, who also works weekends at Jones Beach West End 2. “We’re making saves pretty much every weekend.”

McLoughlin said nearly 80 percent of rescues this time of year are of swimmers caught in rip currents, strong currents that can overcome even experienced swimmers and pull them out into the ocean.

McLoughlin, a championship swimmer in high school and college, took the state lifeguard test for the first time in 1984, when she graduated from Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick. She came in with the 11th highest score in a “male-dominated group.”

After 15 years as a state lifeguard, she took an 11-year break to raise four children and returned to lifeguarding at 45, gradually rising to lieutenant. She lives on Long Island from May to November, then flies south to Costa Rica, where she works part-time as a lifeguard and lives “the good life,” surfing the Central American nation’s beaches.

One of her most difficult saves came when she was lifeguarding at Robert Moses Field 3 and saw a woman beginning to go under 500 yards offshore. She paddled out and hauled the woman by the wrist onto her surfboard — only learning afterward that it was a suicide attempt.

McLoughlin said the proudest moments in her 19 years working as a beach lifeguard are in “knowing that you’re making a difference in someone’s life … that you are sending everybody back home to their families.”

By the numbers

New York State Parks

482 lifeguards for 15 miles of beach and 2 pools

Age range: 17 to 71

Info: parks.ny.gov

City of Long Beach

160 lifeguards for 3.3 miles of beaches and 1 pool

Age range: 16 to 75

Info: 516-431-1810, longbeachny.gov

Town of Hempstead

526 lifeguards for 11 beaches (9 town and 2 county), across 5 miles of shoreline, and 23 pools

Age range: 16 to 40 and older

Info: 516-572-4130

— Jim Merritt

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