Older Women Step Up to Fill Lifeguard Gap at YMCA Cape Cod

Older Women Step Up to Fill Lifeguard Gap at YMCA Cape Cod


Hyannis – It’s almost 50 years since I last saw swimmers at Kalmos Beach, Maggie Sullivan once again working as a lifeguard, this time for YMCA Cape Cod.

Sullivan, 70, of Barnstable Villa is also one of many older women to join the lifeguards at Y.

“I’m excited about it. It’s fun to be back with the little ones to teach swimming,” she said. “For the past two Fridays, I’ve helped out with some swimming lessons, and starting this week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll have my own lessons.”

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In early July, Mark Thurman, director of operations for the YMCA, sent an email to the YMCA community noting an acute shortage of lifeguards. The situation was so dire that the YMCA not only had to close the pool, but might have to shut down entirely, said Jennifer Wernicki, senior program director responsible for health, water, organic and healthy living.

Sullivan jumped into action.

“Maggie replied, literally, the next day, as soon as the letter got through,” Wernicki said. “We got her into a lifeguard training class the following week.”

Sullivan was a lifeguard at Kalamos Beach

There are approximately 68,000 pool lifeguards working in the United States. About 48 percent of them are women, and 52 percent are males. The average age is 26, according to professional research firm Zippia Inc. Based in California.

At Hyannis, Sullivan was required to complete a rigorous four-day training program – one day online and three days in class and in the pool.

“She’s done an amazing job, in fact, really bringing her natural drive and experience to life,” Wernicki said.

Growing up in Centerville, Sullivan said she and her brothers and sisters were “beach bums” and were regulars at Calmos Beach, swimming and playing various water sports every summer.

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“My parents worked, and when I was 13 I had a great job looking after my younger siblings (Brother Eddie who was 9 and Sister Kelly, 7) all summer. They dropped us off at Kalmos Beach, we took swimming lessons, and we stopped working.”

At the age of fifteen she has passed the lifesaving training courses, but to be a lifesaver she must be sixteen. However, one of the regular lifeguards developed mononucleosis and was asked to work as a novice lifeguard.

Over the next eight years, from 1966 to 1973, Sullivan was a lifeguard at Calmos Beach, eventually becoming a master lifeguard.

“The city was paying for all the watersports lessons,” Sullivan said. “They sent us for 10 days to Whitman, Massachusetts where I learned all kinds of lifeguards, first aid, ship rescues, boat rescues. It felt like a profession. I loved doing it at the time.”

Striving to work with children

Several beach moms commented on Sullivan’s skill at working with children and encouraged her to become a teacher, which she did.

After graduating from UMass Amherst in 1973, she attended graduate school at the State University of New York at Albany where she earned a master’s degree in speech-language pathology.

For the next quarter century or so, she worked as a speech and language teacher in various places across the country including California where she met her husband, Bruce Jones.

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In 1983, she returned to Cape Cod with her husband, and continued to work as a speech and language teacher until she retired in 2011.

This did not last long as I started working as a curriculum consultant for schools and educational institutions at the national level.

Finally, due to constant travel and eventually the pandemic, I retired again in 2020.

But she returned to him again.

Older women join the lifeguard crew

Sullivan is a lifelong swimmer and a member of the YMCA. Continue to swim regularly for half a mile three times a week.

She said, “At first, I thought, What do I do?” “But a lot of it was the same for me at this point. I’m by nature a strong swimmer, so it wasn’t difficult. The biggest challenge was getting out of the pool without a ladder. I could do it, but it’s not a pretty sight.”

During the training sessions, Wernicki said she was impressed by Sullivan’s knowledge and ability to work with and teach young lifeguards.

“You watched the rescues and you know what could happen,” Wernicki said.

Sullivan is not the first elderly woman to join the lifeguard crew at Y, and she won’t be the last. Wernicki said Susan Kingston, 71, of Austerville, has been a Class Y lifeguard for 25 years.

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Sheryl Woodcock, 60, and Carol Cutos, 67, both from Sandwich are in the process of joining the cast as well.

Wernicke said that before the pandemic, most young people applied for lifeguard jobs, but now it’s the elderly who are applying.

“We have a lot of seniors and are very active in their community. They say, ‘If we can help, we want to help,'” Wernicke said. Older people get it. They love the job.”

The YMCA is still looking for saviors. Those interested can contact Wiernicki at 508-362-6500 ext. 1220.

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