Name: Mary O’Donnell

Years Lifeguarding: 3

Location(s): Cork County Council, Ireland

My name is Mary O Donnell, I’m 19 years old and I’m a beach lifeguard for the Cork County Council in Cork, Ireland for the last 3 years. I am currently in college and studying Aeronautical Engineering in the University of Limerick. I come from a small town called Fermoy, about 40 minutes away from the nearest beach, however, my passion for life saving stems from one of my greatest interests: Swimming.

I have been swimming for as long as I remember and competed with my local club. I was extremely lucky to have a brilliant coach and I owe it to him, Pop O’Hara for opening up the world of Irish Water Safety and Surf Rescue to me. He encouraged me to pursue the different levels of water safety which resulted me in becoming a beach lifeguard, I did complete my pool lifeguard award and as much as I loved the pool, I knew the hands on, fast paced and challenging environment of the beach was more for me. The last 3 summers I have spent working on different beaches, with every day different to the last, and I am glad to be part of the Lifesaving Service.

What does the Lifesaving community mean to me? I am a lifeguard. I protect lives. Being able to acknowledge that instils an undying pride in myself. It wasn’t just the end goal to become a lifeguard; the journey was just as rewarding. I have always been extremely active and I love to apply myself to overcome challenges and to finish all the water safety levels was just another goal I could set myself. I loved learning the different releases and holds and eventually, I was able to teach others. I taught water safety for my Gaisce Award – a presidential award for volunteering. The teamwork and familial aspect of Irish Water Safety drew me in and I was certain this was a community I wanted to remain part of.

I was continuously being exposed to the benefits of life saving when I began competing in indoor and outdoor Surf Lifesaving on my local beach. This incorporated many of my passions – water safety, swimming, being outdoors, being active. I quickly realized that by becoming a beach lifeguard, I could apply turn my passions into a career, and it feels to me I haven’t worked a day in my life in the last few years as I’ve simply been doing what I absolutely adore, and getting paid!

It’s not just the money, or the status that has really grown my interest in lifesaving. As I mentioned earlier, community and teamwork has played an imperative role is keeping my passions alive. The people I’ve met and worked with, the lifelong friends I’ve made over the years, the summers spent living all together, are all experiences I never thought I would have. I never really felt like I fitted in, in school or in my home town, but I used to joke that ‘being a nice person was surely a criteria for being a lifeguard’. This is a community that respects my abilities, allows me to be who I am, and makes me feel like I belong. Among lifeguards, on the beaches, or donning the IWS badge while teaching, is where and how I feel most accepted and appreciated.

I always feel so proud to represent the Red and Yellow of the Lifesaving Service and the flash of wonder in peoples’ eyes when you tell them ‘I’m a beach lifeguard’ can never be beaten. This is a job like no other; it’s not often people can say they’ve been surfing or swimming on their work breaks! I’m extremely grateful that I choose this life path as I can’t imagine it could have been any other way for me. Some days, just looking out at a flat calm ocean on a sunny day (Which isn’t often for Ireland), I can’t help but tear up as I just simply love this job.

Luckily, during the years, I’ve worked on very safe beaches and haven’t experienced many serious accidents – Irish beaches are far from the drama of Bondi Rescue! However, what I can take most from my surf rescue experience, is how it has built my character. Even when dealing with minor first aids and jellyfish stings, you can get an insight on the public, and can quickly learn how to deal with them. I did work during the IronMan competition when it was held in Ireland last year which required strong diligence, teamwork and organization. I began lifeguarding at 17, and as a short, and quite young looking girl for their age, I must admit, I did encounter some prejudice. However, my experiences in Surf Rescue have taught me self-confidence and resilience and made me able to deal with those situations in a calm manner; I know that I am qualified and am confident in my abilities now to demonstrate that towards the public. It takes a lot, both physically and mentally, to work in this service, but every day is a new chance to better yourself as a life saver and a person.

My advice to women wanting to become lifeguards? You have nothing to lose. It does seem daunting at times and the road is quite long, but every step is equally as rewarding. Along my journey, I became a qualified water safety instructor, swimming teacher, first aid responder, national surf lifesaver, pool lifeguard, beach lifeguard and to be honest, I don’t think I’ll end there. I’ve learned life skills in an incredibly versatile and dynamic environment and gained accolades recognized at international levels that can bring my lifeguarding all over the world. I’ve watched children try their hardest to perfect a certain release for them to finally pass after weeks of hard work, I’ve had students and parents asking ‘what should I do next? I want to keep going with water safety’. I feel I’ve inspired others as well as been extremely inspired by my teammates and co workers who are equally passionate about water safety and their own particular interests. This is a unique occupation that holds a new adventure every single day and I highly recommend it to anyone.