Lifeguard in the Olympic pool? ‘If required’

RIO DE JANEIRO — In the Olympic pool, the world’s best swimmers are never more than a few strokes from the edge and always have the floating lane close at hand. They are constantly watched by various coaches and assistants.

Who else watches them? The lifeguards. The Olympic pool has lifeguards in case someone like Michael Phelps, winner of 18 medals, is drowning.

“I dream of that possibility,” Anderson Fortes, a 39-year-old lifeguard at the Rio health club, said with a smile, before beginning his shift in the pool at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium. “If I think about it”.

The chances are slim. “The chance is one in a million, but we are prepared,” Fortes said.

The lifeguards at the Rio games have perhaps the best view of the venue, as they are one of the few people allowed around the pool. But maybe they don’t feel very useful.

During a workout this week, Phelps crisscrossed the pool, stroke after stroke, lap after lap, preparing for the race that began Saturday. The arena was nearly empty, just a few trainers, volunteers, and security guards. There were also two men in red shorts, whistles around their necks and floats under their arms, watching intently from both sides of the pool.

They never used their whistles. Not once did they yell at the athletes not to run on the floor around the pool. They never moved into action, never even felt their hearts beat a little faster at the sudden, momentary possibility (still not out of the water?) that someone needed help.

“I don’t think they need us, but we’ll be watching just in case,” Fortes said.

Apparently, Olympic lifeguards are the same ones who calmly keep an eye on the antics and scampering at community pools and are ready to jump into the water and rescue a swimmer in trouble.

There are more or less 75 of them —15 are women— and they have been hired to work in the Olympic venues and in Lifeguard training centers for swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, water polo and slalom canoeing. (Monitoring open-water competitions like triathlons, marathon swims, and sailing is a separate matter.)

A life jacket may be useful at some events. Water polo can be very rough. Synchronized swimming is a surprising source of bruises. Divers are at risk of injury when hitting the water.

However, in the pool, which is three meters deep, in competitions such as the 50-meter freestyle and the breaststroke, do you need a lifeguard or two?

“Yes, it is necessary,” said Danielle Matelot, 25, the lifeguard supervisor at the Olympic Aquatic Stadium. She mentioned the chances of cramps, heart attacks, and head banging against the wall.

“We hope they don’t need our involvement,” he said.

Certainly, no swimmer has died in the Olympics, but it remains unclear if a competitor has ever needed a lifeguard. Either way, lifeguards are a common appearance at world swimming meets.

The International Swimming Federation (FINA, for its acronym in French), the international regulatory body for swimming, does not explicitly require lifeguards at the Olympic Games. The FINA rules set out in the “Rules for Venues” for Olympic Games and World Championships state: “In order to protect the health and safety of persons using swimming venues for recreational, training and competition purposes, owners of public pools or pools with restricted use for training and competition must comply with the requirements established by law and the health authorities of the country where the pool is located.”

To know more: 6 Health Benefits of swimming and lifeguarding

A state law in Rio de Janeiro requires the presence of lifeguards in swimming pools with an area greater than six meters by six meters.

The law, which protects users of swimming pools at places like recreation centers and housing complexes, came eight years before Rio was designated as the site of the Olympic games.

Eight lifeguards, Fortes among them, are in charge of swimming. From the start of training last week until the competition began on Saturday, they were divided into two shifts.

Four of them—two in the competition pool, two in the training pool—worked from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Afterwards, the other four took their places and worked until midnight when the training ends. They will receive 1,100 reais (about 340 dollars) for 20 days of work.

During training, Marcello and some of his subordinates were close to Phelps and kept a close eye on him.

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