Sept. 1, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Mary Reiser spent her summer at the beach, but the junior on the South Carolina cross country team wasn’t there to work on her tan. She was there to save lives and get an education. Reiser earned a job with the National Park Service as a lifeguard at Assateague Island National Seashore which has beaches in her home state of Maryland as well as Virginia.
“It’s cool being a surf lifeguard because when people think of lifeguards, they think you sit in a chair all day,” Reiser said. “That’s totally not what it is. You have to work out a couple of times per day, and every time you go somewhere, you have to be running.”
Reiser lived on the nearby small island of Chincoteague for the summer, and had the opportunity to work with her twin sister, Caroline, who runs at East Carolina University.
“It was an absolutely amazing job,” Reiser said. “I had such a great experience. I met a ton of great people. I’ve worked other jobs as a cashier where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything helpful. This was such a great a feeling to be helping people every day and know that you’re making a difference.”
Reiser made a difference with a pair of rescues on July 31.
“We had a riptide that developed, which is a current that can pull people out to sea,” Reiser said. “There were a lot of people on boogie boards. My head life guard told me to go check on some people that were kind of far out. There was an older woman and a teenager. I had them wear my buoy and swam them over to a sand bar and then walked them in. Sometimes it’s hard for swimmers on boogie boards because they get pulled out and can’t figure out how to get back in.”
Twenty minutes later, she saw a group of young boys getting pulled out and made the call herself to go after them.
“There were three boys,” Reiser recalled. “I think they were pre-teens. One of the kids needed help so I swam him over to the sand bar. Then one of the other kids said he needed help, so I went back to get him. Then at the end of the day, I had my first ‘lost kid,’ where a little kid had wandered away from his parents on the beach. We get that a lot, but we always find them.”
“I had never done anything like this before. I really pushed myself out of my comfort zone.”
Reiser was able to remain calm throughout the rescues because the lifeguards are constantly going into the water to check on swimmers to make sure they’re OK, even if they don’t need assistance. With a series of shark attacks along the east coast making headlines this summer, Reiser said she wasn’t worried about the main character from Jaws making an appearance on her watch. However, she did have a run-in with another aquatic creature.
“I got stung by a jellyfish,” Reiser said. “I was out on a paddleboard, about 100 or 150 yards out, and I felt something hit my chin. So I came back in and figured out I had got stung. It hurt for like an hour.”
Reiser had been vacationing in the area with family since she was a child, and she and her sister were recruited to look into the job a couple of years ago by the head lifeguard who saw them training on the beach.
“I had never done anything like this before,” Reiser said. “I really pushed myself out of my comfort zone.”
Before she could take her post as a lifeguard, all of the candidates had to pass a series of tests.
“We had a 500 meter swim in the ocean, which we had to do in under 10 minutes,” Reiser said. “Then a mile and half run in under 12 minutes. We had to do mock-rescues and things like that to show that we were competent in the water. For our lifeguard program, we’re all certified EMRs (Emergency Medical Responders), so we had to pass that test and be CPR certified.”
With all the physical demands of her job, Reiser said there were other challenges.
“I don’t like being cold,” Reiser said. “If it’s 70 degrees out, I’m wearing jeans and a sweater and a jacket. When I got there in the spring to train, I had to go in the ocean every day and the water felt like it was 40 or 50 degrees. It was so cold.”
A typical shift is eight hours, and the lifeguards were typically in the chairs overseeing the beach for two hours at a time with workouts or short breaks in between. They’re also in the water to check on swimmers and surfers throughout the day when not in the chair. Needless to say, staying focused is a requirement.
“If it’s a busy day, it’s so much easier,” Reiser said. “If there are riptides, then I’m so much more ‘on it.’ I don’t get bored, so I was able to stay focused. It helps to keep moving and not sit there like a bump on a log.”
In addition to running, Reiser had also lettered in swimming in high school. While she’s focused on competitive running for the Gamecocks, the cross training is helpful.
“Doing this and running for South Carolina really play off of each other,” Reiser said. “Whether it was running barefoot in the sand, or being on the paddleboard, and swimming in the ocean, it was all great conditioning for about eight hours per day. At the same time, because I run for South Carolina, I was in shape to do the job. It’s definitely a different cup of tea with the different muscles you’re using when swimming in the ocean with the (rescue) buoy pulling on you. I felt stronger coming into our workouts this fall.”
Looking ahead, Reiser could see herself competing as a triathlete when her cross country career is over.
“I’ve thought about it,” Reiser said. “I used to bike 11 miles per day to and from work. I didn’t have a car all summer. Yeah, I think I’d definitely do that after college.”
While much of her time was spent on the beach, another highlight of working there was witnessing what is known as the “Pony Roundup” where the untamed Chincoteague ponies swim across the Assateague Channel.
“The ponies run free on the beach, on people’s food, and they destroy people’s sand castles,” Reiser laughed. “But it was so cool. In Virginia, the ponies are rounded up and they run them up for an auction every July. It’s like a week-long process. There are so many people in town for this event. It’s huge. My sister and I slept in the lifeguard shack one night and got up early to run and saw the ponies coming down the beach with the ‘Saltwater Cowboys,’ and it was incredible. Later we went and saw them in their pen.”
Reiser is an honor roll student, studying public relations with a minor in community health, and while she still has time to figure out her career path, she wouldn’t mind another summer at the beach.
“I love college.” Reiser said. “I love to go to class. I love to learn, but I would do this job again. 100%, yes. I loved that job.”
Running, swimming and horses made for a great summer, but this doesn’t mean she’ll be contacting South Carolina swim coach McGee Moody or equestrian coach Boo Major about a place on their rosters anytime soon.
“We can probably hold off on that,” Reiser said. “We can just stick to the running.”
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