A Story of a Boy Who Could – Because the Lifeguards Believed in Him –

I wanted to share the story that my husband had written about my son and his recent journey of how he overcame a pretty big fear….a fear that not only most little kids have, but one that many adults have also.  I am very proud of my little boy and so happy he learned so much about himself in such a short span of time.  It takes a village to raise kids and this is one example of how so many people contribute to shaping our children’s lives.  Here is Michael’s story:

Let me tell you the story of a boy, not just any boy but a boy who could light up a room with his 9-year-old gap toothed smile and brilliant green eyes and beach blonde hair. This boy is wickedly smart, yet has little time for focused activities. He has a tinge of mischief in his bones, but often that is overlooked because of his charm. He would rather play soccer 12 hours a day than 20 minutes of reading.

On this warm sunny day in June of 2015 this little boy set out on a new, wondrous, scary adventure. An adventure where the anticipation of this day has plagued him for a year. You see, this adventure is a 7-week summer program called Junior Lifeguards, and not just any junior guards but the toughest junior guards on the West Coast. There are several other Jr. Guard (JG) programs up and down the coast but none as tough as the East Beach Santa Barbara Junior Guards – this club typically wins the West Coast JG’s every year.

So, to set the scene, last year in 2014, at the age of 8 this little boy wanted to be like his big brother, a JG. Try as he might he tried out, but was a little small for the task. The youngest age they typically let kids in is 9-years of age, however, because his older brother was such stud and crushing it, they gave him a chance. Well, he washed out of the program last year, and what followed was a year of nervousness knowing that he would have to take another shot at the JG’s the following summer.

Fast forward to June 2015, the anxiety this year was evident in leading up to the sign up, leading up to the pool training sessions, leading up to the testing (you must pass a swim test before they will even consider letting you in) and eventually leading up to the first day of JG. He begrudgingly admitted that he did not want to do JG, but as parents, we knew full well that he had something to prove this year. In preparation to pass the swim test prior to JGs, he went through a two-week swim training course at Los Banos pool. Picture this…. a water drenched Chihuahua shivering violently. That is this boy after a JG swim training session in a heated pool with a wet suit on, no less. You see, this is a sinewy kid with a six-pack and only enough fat on his body to keep his heart and lungs warm which calculates out to about 1.75% body fat. As adversity would have it, he failed the swim cut-off time for acceptance into the JG program this year, but the Lifeguards saw the desire in his little heart and let him begin the program.

This little guy has always been a stellar athlete, in soccer…but he never really attempted anything else… soccer was his passion.

First day of JG’s this little guy was anxiety ridden, he was sullen, head down. Oh he does well on the dry land events, but as soon as the lifeguard instructors mention that it is time to enter the water, any color remaining in his face disappears and he immediately begins shivering (see the earlier insert regarding shivering in a heated pool with a wet suit) he was about to enter the big scary cold ocean with a thousand other minnows aka junior guards swimming with one goal, to make it to the buoy and back. Oh, he had no problem crashing into the waves, reminiscent of his love of playing in the waves since 2. But, today was different – he was required to swim what seemed like a mile to the single buoy and back. The water would be over his head and he had no Idea what lurked in the water at such great depths. Panic set in and his once powerful little kick (seriously he can out kick his daddy, a 7 time Ironman) disappeared and all he could think about was heading to shore. After repeated attempts by lifeguards

to get him to swim he ended up on a lifeguard floaty, they call cans, and he was towed almost the entire distance to the buoy and back to shore. Note: It is still acceptable for 9 year old boys to cry their hearts out, and he took that liberty. As a result he retreated into a shell, kept to himself the rest of the day. Even in group activities he was always on the perimeter and not totally engaging.

Day Two, not much better outcome. Still anxiety ridden and keeping to himself. They did have a run-swim-run event, but the swim distance was just past where the waves broke (his comfort zone). He ended up beating 15 fellow junior guards. A positive ending of the day. Side note. Most parents don’t put their kids into JG until 10 or 11 years old knowing the rigors of the club. There are only a handful of 9 year old JGs this year.

Day Three, We practiced that morning before JG, I counseled him on staying relaxed and counting his strokes 1..2..3..4.. breathe, 1..2..3..4..breathe. Today was the big day, either swim to the first buoy or get kicked out of the program; more anxiety, more nervousness, more reclusiveness, it was painful to watch the internal struggle this little boy went through, but by the grace of God and a little help from the lifeguards (they have always had a soft spot for this little boy)  He swam to the buoy and passed. The beaming smile on his face and the tears of joy on both of our faces as he ran up to tell his daddy he swam to the buoy and back – a priceless father-son moment. (I am so glad I had the opportunity to witness this win, if I had a real job I would have missed this).

Day Four – Mama and Papa are thinking to themselves, ok he has got this now, yesterday was a confidence booster he can nail a trip to the buoy and back no problemo. You could tell this little boy had a little lift in his step, a little bit more pride in his stride, until ………. He read the slate of activities today. “Burger and fries” The little boy had heard about this, and now it was a reality. I am standing next to him as he read the board, and I am thinking ok, sounds like a doable day, but then he told me what “burger and Fries” meant. It is code for – two buoys aka, the “twins”. His little face just shut down, and he began to cry. Uh oh!!! I thought we got through this fear of swimming in the ocean. Apparently that was only in my mind. In his mind this was like three times the distance and all of it out in the deep cold ocean. I did my best to talk him off the cliff so to speak, to no avail. Tears and shivering all over again. I reminded him 1..2..3..4.. breathe. I stayed with him until the last minute before he ran up to the surf line with the 75 other kids and he just stopped!!!! I could see his shivering body as he was sobbing uncontrollably. You could see him slowly dog paddling and moving ever so slowly toward the first buoy. He caught site of a life guard with a “can” and started moving in that direction, again ever so slowly. The pain in papa’s heart was enormous, understanding what was going through his little head. This little boy was so scared, yet he wanted to impress his papa and mama. His fears won out and was essentially towed back in to shore. But he just did so well yesterday swimming to the single buoy, what happened??? Apparently swimming two buoys was overwhelming.

Day Five – another test day, aka washout day. Swim “burger and fries” or you are out of program, lifeguard instructors were spending way too much time pulling the stragglers along, including this little boy. All told there were 5-6 children having similar issues as the little boy in this story. Another day of no engagement with the other JGs. Another day of heavy anxiety, another day of dread and wondering how this little guy will do it after yesterday’s debacle. Breathe 1..2..3..4.. papa shouts, wishing, praying with every fiber that by some miracle he will overcome his fears. To no avail. Although this little guy makes a valiant effort and does swim quite a bit further than yesterday, although he still required assistance to complete the burger and fries. As we pack up the boys and head home we are certain we will be getting an email that night stating that this little guy, try as he might, will no longer be able to be a JG. We never did receive that email, thank God. Undaunted, we figured we would do what McDonald’s do, never give up. We vowed as parents that we will spend the weekend getting this “little-boy-that-could” to the point of feeling comfortable in the water and gain confidence to do the burger and fries, aka the twins.

That weekend we made the trip to the same beach where the guards work out, the same time of day, wore the same clothes so everything was familiar. This time mama, papa, and big brother were all there to get this little guy around the burger and fries.

What a disaster!   This little guy’s anxiety was beyond belief, crying and making excuses not to go any further. Even with the family there coaxing and prodding, we did not even make it to the first buoy. We were crushed, how are we going to turn this around. We sat on the beach for a couple hours with towels over our heads just hoping that divine intervention would strike this little guy. We shuffled home sunburnt with no answers.

Day Six – Not a bad day, activities focused on land activities and a little free time in the water, where this simply means body surfing, which has never been an issue with this little guy, he can always stand up if he wants.

Day Seven – Tuesday, June 30th– We walked up to the activity board together. Ok timed run on the beach, – check, no problem, social swim (or not) – check, no fear here…. only a social swim today. The little guy is feeling ok, no heavy anxiety, starting to interact with some of his JGs, cause it looks like it is going to be a fun day. As they prepare for the “Social Swim” this little toe-head boy with his oversized goggles gives me a little wave before they go into the water with what I understood to be playtime.

Suddenly, the command is given and the 70-strong, dashed into the water. So, I visually follow this brightly colored, frightened boy (he is the only one who wears a rash guard and it is bright blue with yellow sleeves). I see him in the middle of a large pack and then I lose sight of him. I all of the sudden I realize that “play time” swim is BS; they are doing the twins; the burger and fries. I frantically gaze the water line looking for the bright yellow arms. I don’t see them and resolve myself to visually follow the last five at the back of the pack thinking this little guy is one of them as he was the previous week. These five were not using the crawl stroke, more like the dog paddle and thereby rationalizing why I could not see his yellow arms with certainty. Again I get the deep crushing feeling of, oh no he will be scarred for life from this experience. I continue to watch these five struggling JG’s certain one is my son and even seeing a blonde head being pulled and cajoled to the second buoy by the lifeguards, and wondering what the heck is happening, I was certain that the blonde head I saw struggling in the water in last place was my son. Miracles of Miracles, my son had stayed with the large pack of swimmers and completed the twins, the burger and fries, with absolutely no assistance, in fact he beat 37 other swimmers into the shore. We hugged each other with absolute pride and happiness, and danced wildly, a moment forever burned into my memory, what a magical moment for a proud papa and a son who overcame an overwhelming fear of the ocean and rise to meet this challenge. A memory I hope he will remember when other challenges in his life presents itself…he will think back to this day and say, “Papa I can do this…..”

P.S. The lifeguard, Paige who was watching over the group on her paddle board, said in the middle of the swim, and once Cruzie realized he had conquered his fears, he was screaming at the top of his lungs “I love junior guards, I want to do this every year”!

A special note of thanks to the lifeguards who never gave up on this little guy when by all means they should have.   They should have given up on him after the failure to swim the buoy the first time and again after the complete failure to master the twins later in the week. We owe you, and my little Cruzie owes you big time for changing his life forever and teaching him to conquer his fears.   THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!


Written by Cruz’s papa, Michael McDonald