When people think of life guards they immediately conjure up images from Baywatch, but the reality is quite different according to Sam Aitken, one of Freyberg Pool’s resident life guards and facility operator.
Most of the comments Sam gets when people find out what he does revolve around the popular 80’s TV show, but he says David “the Hoff” Hasslehoff has done him no favours.
“People immediately make a comparison to what they’ve seen on TV, and some ask if it’s boring, and some ask if we’ve saved someone today – basically they mock us, mainly because they don’t know what we actually do.”
But it’s all water off a duck’s back: “Our training and role is focused mainly on the behind the scenes work so that we don’t need to get in the pool, so there’s a large reliance on health and safety, identifying risks and hazards before they happen, so 99% of the job is prevention, and only 1% is reaction.”
In fact Sam is proud of the fact that he’s never had to go in the water to save anyone: “Our main first aid issue is with people who overheat or get dehydrated in the sauna and spa areas, despite numerous signs and advice to drink water and take a break every 15 minutes.”
Sam really enjoys working at the facility for a number of reasons, but it’s the people factor that makes it special.
“At Freyberg there’s a real mix of customers who are all here for different reasons, and that’s one of the highlights of the job. We get sports stars, Council staff, famous people, young people, old people, regulars, and our friends and family pop in for a swim too. The best thing is that endorphins make people happy, so it’s a really positive place to work in that sense – it’s really refreshing being surrounded by that every day.
“Also, we’re employed by the Council so we’re ambassadors for the city, and we want to promote health and well-being, so we have an obligation to act with dignity and respect, we want people to see we really do care, and that our service is relaxed, happy, and the complex is a comfortable place for all to come to,” says Sam.
There are two bare minimum qualifications you need to be a life guard in New Zealand: a First Aid certificate and a NZQA approved PLPC (Pool lifeguard practicing certificate).
Staff get on the job training, and can boost their experience levels with more comprehensive qualifications like health and safety, crisis intervention, and community aquatic studies.
Born in Otaki, Sam grew up in the Hawke’s Bay where he spent most of his free time at the beach, but it was playing canoe polo that really gave him a good base line for confidence in the water.
As a teenager he was a fully trained life guard at Splash Planet in Hastings, and when he headed to Wellington to study, it was a natural transition to work part-time as a life guard in the capital too.
Sam started at Freyberg pool in 2009 and says the team is like one big family: “Because we do long hours and shift work we spend a lot of time with each other, and we’re all very competitive. In fact there’s an unspoken challenge going on at the moment, where everyone’s trying to outdo each other with the healthiest and tastiest food preparation – it’s like a mini Freyberg Masterchef.
“There are also lots of events that we do with the customers, like healthy eating classes, and we try to get combined teams together for sponsored runs like the AMI Round the Bays race.”
Sam and a team from Freyberg represented Wellington at the New Zealand National Lifeguard Sports Competition in Hamilton in September, making the Capital proud with a second placing just two points behind defending champions, Auckland.
There are seven Council-run pools around Wellington, one of the oldest is our only non-heated pool, the Khandallah outdoor pool which was opened in the early 1920s, and then there’s Karori, Tawa, Thorndon, Wellington Regional Aquatic Centre, and Keith Spry (which is due to reopen this summer following a major upgrade).
Ever since Sam got to Wellington he’s been working his summers at Thorndon pool, and this year is no different as he prepares for the sunny months ahead there.
“I work there every year because it’s really hard to get a new job at Thorndon because everyone loves it there, and no-one ever leaves,” laughs Sam.