Lifeguard combines passion for pool, policy

Another article in a series about the people and the jobs that define a Maryland summer.

Conor Sheehey has heard the "Baywatch" jokes. All of them, thank you.

No, the 19-year-old lifeguard doesn't run in slow motion. Most of the swimmers he supervises don't have camera-ready physiques or model looks. (No offense.) And he's usually taking in the view from a sun-shaded, 6-foot perch overlooking a pool, not the sands of a California beach.

But like his fictional TV counterparts, Sheehey is all business when he's sitting in the chair.

Clad in Ray-Ban black aviator shades, he peers out, scanning the pool for infractions. The sunglasses are his accessory of choice.

"Almost every lifeguard chooses sunglasses" over hats, he jokes. "The sunglasses give you a very intimidating look. People don't know what's behind those things."

"Only one bounce," he tells a boy on the diving board. Even while answering questions, Sheehey's eyes never leave the pool.

Wrapping up his third year at Padonia Park Club, Sheehey's job is parts lifeguard, customer service rep, custodian and membership chairman.

Padonia Park Club, a private club in Cockeysville, boasts the kind of setting that sitcoms are made of: lush greenery, paddle boats, basketball and volleyball courts on a hill; pools rimmed with lawn chairs, and a kaleidoscope of swimmers in multicolored suits and trunks taking it all in. On a blazing summer day, chlorine-treated water promises cool relief.

Swimming pools have long carried a special kind of magic for Sheehey. As a 2-year-old longing to try the slide on his backyard pool, his parents made a deal with him: Learn to swim to the other side of the pool by yourself and you can use the slide.

By age 3, he didn't even need to wear inflatable "water wings."

"I was like a fish," he remembers. "The pool was the No. 1 place I wanted to go."

These days, not much has changed.

He liked the idea of lifeguarding even before he got his job. His older sister Riley started working there a few years ago, and took him by Padonia Park to see if he'd like to give it a shot the summer before his sophomore year at Loyola Blakefield High School.

It was a no-brainer.

He enjoyed the camaraderie between the lifeguards and said he was impressed by their attitudes. Many told him they liked their job so much that they didn't mind taking on extra hours if needed.

"At a place like this, where people love to work, where I can be outside and be around the water, I thought it was the ideal kind of job," Sheehey said.

Since the 1960s, the family-owned Padonia Park has been a summer respite for suburbanites. It used to hire 60 employees each summer. Now a year-round operation, it has 160 employees in the summer months. Nearly all of them are between 14 and 20 years old.

When Pikesville resident Bonnie Greenberg met him while touring the club earlier this summer, she couldn't believe he was old enough to work there.

"My first thought was, 'He's just a kid,' but he knew what he was doing," Greenberg said while lounging by the pool with a friend.

Sheehey's competence became clear to Greenberg when her 15-year-old son hurt his shoulder diving. Sheehey calmed her down, telling her that it was only a deep tissue bruise — not a broken bone.

The first summer he worked at the club, Sheehey taught swimming in addition to being a lifeguard, which allowed him to learn children's faces and names.

"Starting as a swim instructor gives you the best possible grasp of the people here," he said. "You get to recognize so many kids after that. It's very helpful when you're sitting up in chair and a kid is trying to do a headstand on the log roller to be able to call them by name. It gets the job done much easier."

Sheehey's work ethic makes him a good lifeguard, manager Kathy Angstadt said.

"Some are just here to get a paycheck," she said. "Conor takes it beyond. He seems to be better than some people at adhering to policies."

Indeed, he's quick to rattle off the club's efforts to emphasize preparedness and prevention.

"We have tough love," Sheehey says, "but in a good way. We're not a whiny place at all."

He works hard at being patient with members, especially children, to keep from ruining their experience at Padonia Park.

Despite his best efforts, however, it's not always easy to entertain one's self while up in the chair.

Lifeguards use a variety of methods. Frequent eye-scanning helps. The swimmers can be a good source of entertainment — children showing off their foam "noodle" toys, diving and log-rolling competitions. At other times, lifeguards count people. They chew ice. Some sing. ("You can see their lips moving," he says.) Just don't let your mind wander too much.

"We get the job done and we work hard," Sheehey says, "but sometimes it doesn't feel like work."

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