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At Barton Springs, lifeguard job takes on sunscreen-slathered mystique

Gretchen Peavy saves lives, applies bandages and ejects rule violators at city’s favorite pool

Just before 7 p.m., a whistle blast slices through the melt-the-rubber-off-the-bottom-of-your-sandals heat of the evening.

A lifeguard leaps from his stand at Barton Springs Pool, rushing to help a panicked young swimmer. Three more guards, including Gretchen Peavy, hurry to assist. It turns out the boy is fine, and 15 minutes later, the bounce of the diving board and squeals of people jumping into cold water resume at the city’s favorite swimming hole.

Landing a job as a lifeguard at Barton Springs holds a certain sunscreen-slathered mystique. Guards keep an eye on huge crowds that brave chilly water in a natural pool with a bottom that’s not clearly visible. And they do their job in an environmentally sensitive spot that draws everyone from hipsters and topless bathers to longtime residents and tourists.

Peavy, 25, grew up in Austin and guarded at pools around the city for several years before joining the staff at Barton Springs. Worried about the responsibility, she hesitated at first to take the job. She spent a season as a cashier before donning a whistle and rescue tube three years ago.

Still, she fought the jitters the first time she climbed onto a stand and took in the view.

“It’s a lot bigger, and a lot harder to see through the water, than other pools,” Peavy says. “It’s a little bit intimidating, but you quickly find it doable and learn to cope with the differences.”

The first time Peavy jumped from her stand to assist someone, her training kicked in instinctively. Every summer, she rescues several struggling people; in all, she estimates that she’s leaped in after more than 15 floundering swimmers. Usually, incidents happen when visitors cramp up or tire out. Sometimes they don’t notice the pool’s underwater drop off.

Records show that just one official drowning has taken place at the pool: A 21-year-old man died in June 2013. (Three other people, including Barton Springs lifeguard Ceazar Kainz, drowned in Barton Creek, outside the pool, earlier this year.)

“You feel like you make a difference,” Peavy says of her job as a guard. “There’s definitely an adrenaline rush when I save someone. People have all different reactions — some are freaked out, some are embarrassed, some are thankful.”

Tonight’s incident resolved, Peavy, who graduated from Texas State University with a degree in bilingual education, returns to her post at the front gate, where someone has dropped off a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies for the staff to share. The guards rotate every 20 minutes among the pool’s nine guard stands, also taking shifts in the office and patrolling the hillsides. At peak hours, up to 18 guards scan the pool and its grounds.

“Thanks for showing up to work today,” one woman calls out to Peavy as she walks down the sidewalk, headed to her next post on a stand near the diving pit.

Whistle poised, she reminds swimmers not to climb on each other’s backs, run or use floats in certain sections of the pool. “Hey bud, you’ve got to take off your shoes and goggles on the diving board,” she calls out to one little swimmer.

Later, Peavy strolls the hillside, a red life-saving tube in hand as she looks for folks with cigarettes, glass containers or alcohol, all rule violations. She reminds visitors that food isn’t allowed, because it attracts bugs and the pool can’t use chemicals to control them. She’s a de facto nurse, applying bandages to scrapes and sunscreen to red shoulders, too.

She also deflects comments from more than one smart aleck.

“Save me, I’m drowning. Help,” one admirer swoons as she passes.

“What’s up, officer?” another calls out.

Most of the guards at the pool are in their early 20s; they must be 17 to guard here. The staff includes students, musicians, artists, people who need a flexible schedule and, rarely, someone with a little gray hair. All undergo advanced training that their counterparts at other city pools don’t get.

“It’s a team effort to keep everyone safe,” says Wayne Simmons, program manager for the city of Austin’s Aquatics Department. “I never want us to have to make a rescue, but there’s a good likelihood they may have to assist someone. That keeps them on edge.”

Besides the requisite 40-hour lifeguard training for all Austin lifeguards, Barton Springs staffers complete open water training. They must be able to swim 200 meters in 3 1/2 minutes, tread water with a 10-pound brick for two minutes, retrieve a mannequin from a depth of 14 feet and jump off a lifeguard stand to retrieve a victim. To qualify, they must work at another city pool for at least one year. After they’re hired, they must attend in-service sessions twice a month to hone skills.

“Because of the higher volume and how popular the site is, we want to make sure we have experienced guards,” Simmons says, noting that the pool averaged almost 3,500 visitors each Saturday during June, July and August 2015. “We pride ourselves on our professionalism, and the level of work these guards do is a step above the traditional lifeguard job.”

There’s a more mundane side to the job, too. There are bathrooms to clean, sidewalks to hose off and trash cans to empty. Every Thursday, the guards use fire hoses, sit-on-top buffers and power washers to deep clean the pool’s natural surfaces. They carefully avoid the habitat of the endangered Barton Springs salamander.

This week, Peavy draws her favorite task — “Riding the Dragon.” She helps unfurl the fire hose, attaching floats to it and stretching it into deep water. When she turns on the water, the force pushes her backward. She uses her feet to aim the nozzle toward the limestone bottom, stirring up algae and sediment, which is carried downstream and out of the pool.

“It’s like wrestling a monster,” she says.

Through it all, the guards serve as ambassadors, educating the public about the environmental importance of the pool and spreading their love for one of the city’s most iconic sites. That’s easy work for staffers like Peavy, who, like most of Austin, think of the pool as a home more than an office.

“This pool has been here so long it’s a community center,” Simmons says. “It’s old-time true Austinites who come here for social swim and a place to meet up and talk about the day’s events and folks coming to train. It’s special to everyone in different ways.”

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