Park lifeguards maintain serious focus at annual competition

Lifeguards, Cullin Brown will have you know, do not laze around beaches, lakes and pools.

"There's a stereotype that we sit in the sun and tan," said Brown, a 19-year-old lifeguard at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland.


State park lifeguards train every day — running, swimming or practicing rescue skills, all of which Brown and about 75 other guards put on display Tuesday at Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis at the annual competition of lifeguards from every state park with a beach or pool.

"It's a tough job. They take their work very seriously," Maryland Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina said as she watched a relay competition that alternated sprints on the beach with paddling in the surf.


This summer has been a particularly treacherous in Maryland waters. The Natural Resources Police has recorded 13 deaths in Maryland waters this year, more than twice as many as at the same time last year, according to Sgt. Brian Albert, a police spokesman.

Of those, however, there's been just one fatality in a state park this year: the death this week of an Elkridge man near the Bloede Dam in Patapsco State Park. Arturo Acosta-Acero disappeared Sunday while swimming in an unguarded area of the Patapsco River. His body was found Monday afternoon.

Swimming can be risky in natural bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Conditions vary from one day to the next, and visibility in the water can often be measured in mere inches.

More than 6 million people visit state parks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and most of them end up swimming, Settina said.

Brown and his fellow lifeguards from Rocky Gap said they see swimmers engage in risky behavior all the time. Asked if they'd ever had to rescue a swimmer, the seven Rocky Gap guards all shot their hands into the air.

Ty Bowers, a 20-year-old lifeguard from Fort Ashby, W.Va., said that a few days ago he helped rescue a dog and its owners, who tried to save the dog when it got into trouble in Rocky Gap's lake. He said the dog owners made the common mistake of failing to look out for themselves and taking on more than they could handle.

Other tips from lifeguards: Follow rules, swim with a buddy, don't assume lifeguards are babysitters, don't be embarrassed to accept help when needed, and wear a life jacket in boats.

Mike Berna and Jeremy Watson were part of the team of lifeguards from Gunpowder Falls State Park — last year's winning team in the competition. They said being a lifeguard on a natural body of water is challenging — the water level on a river can rise feet from one day to the next as tides change, and the water is murky at best.


"When somebody goes under water, it's very difficult to keep track of them," said Berna, a fourth-year lifeguard from Perry Hall.

To keep skills sharp, each state park has a training regimen, said Robin Melton, who oversees training at all state parks. Some parks have an eye toward the annual competition as they train, she said.

"It's a way to show off their skills. They work really, really hard," Melton said.

Some of Tuesday's competitions were not for the faint of heart. "Beach flags," for instance, involved sprints in the sand to grab segments of hose stuck in sand. But since there was one fewer hose than racers, each round saw one participant eliminated.

In the "iron guard relay," teams of three completed a 120-meter swim, a 1-mile run and another 120-meter swim.

The home team from Sandy Point racked up the most points and was crowned this year's champions — earning a trophy and a year of bragging rights.


"I have so much respect for them," Settina said of all the competitors. "These are intelligent, fit people who care deeply about others."