HYANNIS — Almost 50 years since she last guarded swimmers at Kalmus Beach, Maggie Sullivan is back as a lifeguard, this time for the YMCA Cape Cod.
Sullivan, 70, of Barnstable Villa, is also one of several older women who volunteered as lifeguards at the Y.
“I look forward to it. It’s fun to be back with the little ones and teaching them to swim,” she said. “The last two Fridays I’ve been assisting with swimming lessons and starting this week I’ll have my own lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
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In early July, YMCA Operations Manager Mark Thurman emailed the YMCA community citing a serious lifeguard shortage. The situation was so dire that the YMCA may have had to not only close the pool, it may have had to close entirely, said Jennifer Wiernicki, senior program director in charge of wellness, water sports, membership and healthy living.
Sullivan took action.
“Maggie literally replied the next day as soon as she got the message,” Wiernicki said. “We plugged her into lifeguard training class the next week.”
Sullivan was a lifeguard at Kalmus Beach
Nearly 68,000 pool lifeguards are employed in the United States. About 48 percent of them identify as women and 52 percent as men. According to the California career research company Zippia Inc., the average age is 26 years.
At Hyannis, Sullivan had to complete a rigorous four-day training program—one day online and three days in the classroom and pool.
“She did really great, her natural leadership and life experience really came through,” Wiernicki said.
Growing up in Centerville, Sullivan said she and her brothers and sisters were “beach bums” and regulars at Kalmus Beach, who swim and play a variety of water sports every summer.
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“Both my parents worked, and when I was 13 I got the nice job of babysitting my younger siblings (brother Eddie, who was nine, and sister Kelly, 7) all summer long. They dropped us off at Kalmus Beach and we took swimming lessons and hung out,” she said.
She’d passed lifeguard courses at 15, but she had to be 16 to become a lifeguard. However, one of the regular lifeguards contracted mononucleosis and she was asked to fill in as a junior lifeguard.
For the next eight years, from 1966 to 1973, Sullivan served as lifeguard at Kalmus Beach, eventually becoming chief lifeguard.
“The city used to pay for all water sports classes,” Sullivan said. “They sent us to Whitman, Massachusetts for 10 days, where I learned all sorts of lifeguard stuff, first aid, shipboard rescue, boat rescue. It felt like a career. I really enjoyed doing that back then.”
Professional background in working with children
Many of the mothers on the beach commented on Sullivan’s ability 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 of Science degree in speech and language pathology.
For the next quarter century or so, she was a speech and language teacher in various locations across the country, including California, where she met her husband, Bruce Jones.
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In 1983 she moved back to Cape Cod with her husband and worked as a speech and language teacher until her retirement in 2011.
That didn’t last long as she began working as a curriculum consultant for schools and educational organizations nationwide.
Eventually she withdrew again due to constant travel and ultimately the 2020 pandemic.
But she’s at it again.
Elderly women join lifeguards
Sullivan is a lifelong swimmer and a member of the YMCA. She continues to regularly swim half a mile three times a week.
“First I thought: What am I doing there?” she says. “But a lot of it was the same for me at that point. I’m a natural strong swimmer so it wasn’t difficult. The biggest challenge was getting out of the pool without a ladder. I can, but it’s not a pretty sight.”
During the training sessions, Wiernicki said she was impressed with Sullivan’s knowledge and ability to work with and teach the younger lifeguards.
“She’s seen rescues and knows what could happen,” Wiernicki said.
Sullivan isn’t the first elderly woman to join the Y’s lifeguard team, and she won’t be the last. Susan Kingston, 71, of Osterville, has been a Y lifeguard for 25 years, Wiernicki said.
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Cheryl Woodcock, 60, and Carol Coteus, 67, both from Sandwich, are also about to join the staff.
Before the pandemic, it was mostly younger people who applied for lifeguard jobs, Wiernicki said, but now it’s seniors who are stepping up.
“We have a large senior population who are very active in their community. They say, ‘If we can help, we’re happy to help,'” Wiernicki said. “We love it. The seniors get it. They love the job.”
The CVJM is still looking for lifeguards. Interested parties can contact Wiernicki at 508-362-6500 ext. 1220