It has been estimated that nearly 70 percent of Blacks do not swim, due to a variety of reasons, including fear of the water, lack of access to public pools or a history of segregated swimming, which has hindered parents from trusting pools.
This has lead to sadder statistics. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning death rates for African-Americans are 1.5 times higher than the rates for White people.
Fortunately, those numbers don’t include Terrence Green or anyone affiliated with him, as he grew up swimming in Compton.
“The Campanella Pool was my safe haven,” Green said. “I was in the pool at five, six years old, having fun.”
Green wasn’t scared of the water and when he got a little older, he started swimming lessons and later played on the diving board, practicing different flips.
“I would stay in the pool,” Green said. “It was my outlet while everybody was out running the streets.”
One day a lifeguard who was watching him asked him to join the diving team.
“I was probably like 10, 11 years old,” Green said. “Once I was on the diving team, I started to get some structure.”
Green, a self-proclaimed “pool rat,” was swimming recreationally, then joined swim teams and diving teams. Later, he turned his love into a lifelong career, becoming a locker room attendant, then a pool lifeguard and eventually moving into management. He is now responsible for all of the programs for the pool at Jesse Owens Community Regional Park in South LA.
“I always loved to race.” Green said. “And sometimes I race the younger lifeguards here to show them I can still swim.”
Now 48 and father to five pool-coached children, Green is training students at the South Los Angeles pool in the new Lifeguard Ready Training (LRT) program. The six-week classes prepare youth ages 16 to 24 with the skills necessary to become LA County swimming pool lifeguard cadets. It serves as a prelude to the two-month long County Pool Lifeguard Training Academy where they will learn how to staff one of the county’s 30 pools and numerous beaches.
Whites are the most common ethnicity among lifeguards, as they make up 71.3 percent of all those certified. Comparatively, Hispanic or Latino ethnicities make up 14.1 and Blacks 5.8 percent of the lifeguard ranks.
Green is happy to be a part of the inaugural LRT classes, which are being held at Roosevelt, Belvedere and Owens pools.
“We are short on staff every summer,” Green said. “And we’re just trying to build it up to have more staff and more diversity.”
The first LRT class began two weeks ago with 16 students. A few dropped out, but some are expected to return to try a second time for the training program. Green’s class now contains 12 students, half of whom are females and the majority of whom are local African-Americans and Hispanics.
Half of the members, although they may have been in a pool before, hadn’t been to the deep end and they didn’t have any swimming experience. Green had to start from scratch.
“One thing about them, they all support each other,” Green said. “When one makes it across the pool, the others are clapping for them. Everybody is supportive of each other.”
Green teaches his students how to become relaxed in the water, how to tread water and practice correct swimming techniques. Once they became comfortable in the shallow water, Green coaxes them to try the deep end, where another lifeguard swims with them.
“If you can swim in the shallow end, you can swim in the deep end,” he tells them. Green teaches the elementary backstroke first, so students can feel more relaxed in the water.
“Once they jump in, they learn how to tread water,” Green explained. “They didn’t know how comfortable it was. Once they’re relaxed in the deep end, they all have fun. They want to dive off the diving board. They’re getting over their fear.”
Green teaches both the LRT and academy classes.
“We do take our training seriously, because we do take lives in our hands,” Green said of the training academy. “A lot of people drop out because they are not in condition yet. They have to beat the time — making 20 laps in 10 minutes.”
And that is just one step. In addition to being a strong swimmer, the one-month academy requires students to be able to tread water for one minute and become familiar with the program’s Emergency Medical Response (EMR) book, which instructors use in hazmat, first aid, CPR and other training.
County pools host several programs for young and old. Water Aerobics is really popular with the elderly, as it is known to reduce the impact of exercise on the joints, sooth the mind and increase energy levels.
“Anyone can have a heart attack,” Green said, noting that staff regularly have inservice sessions to review the EMR book. “We go through so much training, we can be ready for anything.”
Green loves his work preparing a new crop of lifeguards.
“Little do they know, so many lanes will open up for them — in aquatics, the fire department, as a beach lifeguard or even as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician),” he said, explaining that the knowledge gained through training and the EMR book has lead past trainees into a variety of opportunities, including medical careers and law enforcement. “As lifeguards, we look at young kids and work at correcting their stroke. But this program is a lot more.”
The county is putting up fliers in local high schools and advertising in social media for additional students to be trained in future LRT classes. Prospective students can also visit the pool offices at Jesse Owens or Roosevelt parks to learn more about the program.
“What would I tell someone who’s thinking about joining this program or having their child join? I’d say dive in,” Green said. “We’re here to make sure you are safe, skilled and succeed.”
For younger swimmers, the County of LA Department of Parks and Recreation is taking applications for its Youth Aquatics Scholarship Program for the winter and spring swim sessions. This program will ensure that qualifying youth have access to participation in learning to swim lessons at the county’s year-round pools.
Youth can receive a 100 percent discount of the program costs. Scholarships are open to youth ages 5 – 17 years of age and are awarded on a first come, first serve basis. Swim lesson placement will be determined by available space. Applicants should select up to two sessions their participant will attend in order or preference, if applicable. Once awarded, the funds can only be used duirng the winter 2021 and spring 2022 youth swim lessons and are set to expire on June 30, 2022. For more information, visit parks.lacouty.gov/dpr-scholarships.