Tristen Rutsatz was not a swimmer growing up.
He took swim lessons for a while, but never thought about a career working in aquatics until one gym class in high school, when his class took a trip to the pool.
“One day we were doing gym class and the [Aquatics] Coordinator at the time…came up to me and said, ‘You’re decent. Here, sign up for this program,’” Rutsatz said. “So I was like, no, I’m not going to do it. But then I showed my mom and she was like, ‘Oh, you are going to do this.’”
The program was something offered by the District, in which they put high school students through the courses needed to become a lifeguard: Bronze Medallion, Bronze Cross, and National Lifeguard (NL). The courses are provided for free and they count as high school credits.
Once Rutsatz and the others completed the program, they worked manning the two wading pools in town for the summer. Once the fall came around, Rutsatz realized that he really enjoyed working as a lifeguard and applied to work at the Sam Lindsay Aquatic Centre, where he started as an Aquatic Helper.
“I do not regret doing that, no,” Rutsatz said. “Actually, my boss now, Gina Rowlett, she’s actually the person that taught me when I was younger…and it’s been great working under her. She’s a great supervisor, a great leader.”
As an Aquatic Helper, Rutsatz said the job is the typical beginner life-guarding job, which includes guarding, janitorial tasks, and teaching lessons.
Rutsatz said that when he first started, the teaching shifts were always his favourite because he loves getting to see people progress and learn to love the water.
“I like teaching probably level five to level 10 and adults. Adults are probably…the hardest to break, but it’s also the most rewarding to me,” Rutsatz said. “I had one adult class and it only ended up being two participants, and they were both terrified of the water. By the end, I had them both doing front crawl, and they used that to go swimming with their grandkids.”
From there, Rutsatz decided to further his aquatics education so he could move up at the pool, taking his Lifesaving Instructor course so he could teach the Bronze levels, as well as his Pool Operator courses.
With those courses and the experience under his belt, Rutsatz applied for and got the Lifeguard I position, which takes on more of a supervisory role, as well as pool maintenance. He then fairly quickly jumped up to the Lifeguard II position, which is the highest role for guards at the pool.
Rutsatz’s been in the Lifeguard II position for the past five years, and said it’s his favourite of the three positions because he likes teaching and training the newer staff.
“I like being able to mold the next generation of lifeguards. I’ve brought in about four different eras of lifeguards now, so it’s nice to see them come through our ranks, go off, go to school, come back and it’s like, wow, that’s awesome, great, good job.”
He’s also been able to connect with other pools around B.C., through aquatics events and through helping out other pools by lending equipment and such when they’re in need.
“We’re pretty close-knit with Terrace pool, Prince Rupert pool, I’ve got friends now that are from the Burnaby pool. It’s like a whole circle of aquatics out there,” Rutsatz said. “It’s camaraderie, [and] the better goal at the end is getting children to swim.”
Rutsatz has had many memorable experiences in his almost eight years of working at the pool. One in particular was during a summer event the aquatics staff call ‘Water Gun Friday’s’, when he got into a full-on pool battle with one of his fellow guards.
“We had every kid in the pool either on his side or my side and we had all the water guns going. I had a hose, he had a hose and we were going to war there. It was a really memorable experience. Water balloons were going. Nobody was dry that day,” Rutsatz said, laughing. “Of course, I won. At least I tell myself that. [I was] guarding the rest of the day soaking wet, though, so maybe I didn’t win.”
Rutsatz said that he was sad Water Gun Friday’s couldn’t happen this year with COVID-19, but he’s just excited to get back to being on deck and around the pool, and for when lessons start up again, as teaching is still something he really enjoys.
“I love teaching, so doing the Bronze Medallion and the Bronze Cross, and teaching Standard First Aid, that’s a blast. I love the challenge of it. You always have different perspectives, different characters in your class, you never know what you’re going to get,” Rutsatz said. “You can never assume, so, you’re always trying to build everyone together and by the end, you know, when they come out a fully-formed team, you feel pretty good at the end of the day.”
Rutsatz also likes teaching and running training sessions to help keep himself and his guards on top of their first aid knowledge in the case that an incident arises.
He said he once had to do first aid procedures when a swimmer had a spinal injury in the shallow end, and he wasn’t even technically the guard on shift.
“I was actually training that night. I was training two new lifeguards, I wasn’t a guard on deck. And it just happened. One of the guards called for backup, and backup was on break, so I jumped in. It was on a younger patron, so we just got through it. Turns out there was a paramedic in the pool, so we all worked on it together, and fire and ambulance were here within three minutes.”
However, the guards are fully trained and ready to respond, so Rutsatz said that responding absolutely isn’t the hardest part about being a lifeguard. For him, the hardest part is the complacency and just how tiring it can get trying to keep watch on the same spots for the entire day, especially when there isn’t much going on in the water.
“You’re guarding for eight hours — with breaks and all that — but you’re guarding for a full day and with less patrons, it actually becomes harder to watch for a full day. But it’s easy just to forget what you’re doing, so you need to have little things to keep yourself in the zone.”
Rutsatz’s goal going forward is to eventually become the Aquatic Coordinator at the pool when the current one retires. He’s been taking more of the courses he needs for this positions, such as leader development courses and any aquatics courses from the Lifesaving Society, the Red Cross, and the B.C. Recreation and Parks Association (BCRPA).
“No rush for her [to retire], though, I’m learning a lot working under her!” Rutsatz said.
Rutsatz said he thinks participating in that program all those years ago was one of the best choices he made, and he wants to encourage others — especially high school students — to think of a job in aquatics if they’re stuck going forward.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for any person, doesn’t matter your age, doesn’t matter anything. I wasn’t a swimmer and I became a lifeguard and now I’m racing with the Marlins on my time swims,” Rutsatz said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to get high school credits, make some bucks for the summer, and look what lifeguards pump out. They pump out nurses, paramedics, firefighters, all those kind of things. It’s a great entry level to get your foot in the door of dealing with stressful situations.”