Watching them glide through the water at record speeds cheered on by thousands of adoring fans, one would probably never think that an Olympian may need assistance in the pool. But that has always been the role of the Red Cross: to help when the unthinkable strikes.
Loess Hills Chapter lifeguards, Denny Horner and Jason Shannon. Photo credit: Josh White/The Daily Nonpareil
Earlier this month, Red Cross-trained lifeguards from Nebraska and Iowa came together at the Qwest Center in Omaha to guard Olympic hopefuls as they competed for a spot in the upcoming summer games in Beijing. Despite the fact that the swimmers are among the nation's best, the two pools constructed especially for the Olympic trials do require lifeguards. However, traditional lifeguard duties are not part of the job description for the volunteers. Whistles were not blown to discourage roughhousing and "No running" was never shouted from atop tall chairs. Instead, volunteer lifeguards sat discreetly in the front row of the stands keeping a watchful eye out for injuries that might have occurred in the pools.
"If they were running, they probably were just late for their competition," said Denny Horner, a volunteer lifeguard from the Loess Hills Chapter.
Whether he is backpacking through Alaska or deploying to assist victims of a disaster, Horner says he is always looking for his next adventure. For him, being a part of the Olympic trials was the adventure of a lifetime.
"The most exciting part for me was getting to see Katie [Hoff] set the world record," Horner said.
It's not the first time Horner has been directly involved with the Olympics. He carried the Olympic torch through Littleton, Colo. as it made its way to Los Angeles for the games in 1984.
A Red Cross disaster volunteer for five years, Horner was recently deployed to Iowa after a tornado struck the area as well as to San Diego to help victims of the wildfires. He also traveled to New Orleans for three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. A triathlete, Horner was recruited to be a Red Cross lifeguard one day when he was swimming laps at the local YMCA.
"We hope our presence inspired others to become Red Cross trained swimmers and lifeguards," said James Meyers, training and education manager of the Heartland Regional Chapter of the Red Cross.
Meyers said there were a couple of incidents the lifeguards responded to and a few hospital visits, but nothing too serious to speak of at the trials. Lifeguards were instructed not to engage the swimmers in conversation unless it was initiated by the athletes. Meyers had a nice conversation with Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, and at the time, didn't even realize who he was speaking with: "My eyes were on the water the whole time," he said.
Staff from the Heartland Chapter recruited, trained and managed lifeguards for all of the events. As a way of showing their appreciation, the U.S. Olympic Local Organizing Committee donated four backboards and 10 rescue tubes ($2,000 worth of equipment) used at the trials to chapter.
"We were honored to be a part of these events," said Jill Orton, director of health and safety at the Heartland Regional Chapter. "It was rewarding to know that the U.S. Olympic Local Organizing Committee values our expertise in safety training."
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and counsels victims of disasters; provides nearly half of the nation's blood supply; teaches lifesaving skills; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization – not a government agency – and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its humanitarian mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at www.redcrosschat.org.