By Jane Smith
Cathy Conlin does not see herself as a groundbreaking feminist.
When she retires Sept. 3 from Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue after 30 years of service, she will be South Florida’s first woman ocean rescue lifeguard to achieve that milestone.
No Florida department tracks ocean rescue lifeguards and years of service, said her immediate supervisor, Capt. Phil Wotton. He checked with other agencies and found another female lifeguard who retired in Volusia County after 30-plus years of service.
“So glad I am getting out in one piece without any chronic injuries,” Conlin, 54, said. “You know the stuff they tell you about how to lift properly, bend your knees and not your waist. I try to be mindful of that every day.”
She likes working outdoors and says every day is different from her tower perch at Gulfstream Park. Conlin spent about half of her career at the oceanfront park near the town of Gulf Stream.
Her tower mate, Michael Soutter, also will retire in September with 30 years of service.
“I love learning about the ocean, and the weather is ever-changing,” she said. “I can take pictures. There are opportunities to do other things.”
Wotton will miss Conlin’s willingness to take on additional assignments.
“She often volunteered to go to the schools for public-safety lectures and oversaw the junior lifeguard program for numerous years,” he said. “When our office was located at Gulfstream Park, she assisted with a variety of administrative tasks.”
Conlin’s father encouraged both her and her twin sister to take an advanced lifesaving class at age 15, so “that we would have something to fall back on.” While her sister ended up as a financial analyst in Reno, Nev., Conlin turned lifesaving into a career, first serving as a pool lifeguard in Howard Park in West Palm Beach during her senior year in high school.
She stayed there for three years and then spent four years at Wellington pools. Then she decided to try out for an ocean rescue lifeguard position with Palm Beach County. She took the test at Carlin Park and was hired Aug. 25, 1984.
Learning curve was steep
Her first six months were rocky, with marginal reviews. “I didn’t want to give up,” she said. “I knew I had a lot to learn about the ocean, currents and marine life.” By her third annual review, she was rated “exceeds job requirements.”
She does not like to talk about lives she saved, saying, “We focus on education and prevention, so that people don’t get in trouble in the ocean.” They also administer first aid to beachgoers.
Even so, she can recall the specifics of May 31, 2013, when she and her tower mate told three groups of high school boys not to go swimming.
“I remember that there was a single red flag, just one level below ‘the ocean is closed’ (because of rough surf conditions),” Conlin said. “We were restricting people from using skim boards and telling them to go into the ocean only up to their thighs. There were three groups of male teens. … We blew the horn twice at them, knew they heard it.”
Then one of those teens came up to the tower and asked for help finding his friend, later identified as Rodelson Normil, 17.
“My partner (Soutter) ran down the beach with him,” Conlin said. “I stayed and closed up the tower, following protocol: Put up the second red flag (closing the ocean to swimming), call everyone out of the water, call supervisor, call fire main, take extra equipment down the beach.
“It was an unbelievable weather day, the conditions were so rough,” she said. “My adrenalin was going, so I was not exhausted, even though it was cold and rainy. We spent hours searching; I just did not want to quit. Even helicopters were called out to help with the search.
“It was scary and sad,” she said. “The next morning, I thought his body might be wedged in the rocks. So I went down there and swam around, but I could not see him.”
His body never was found.
Won’t miss early mornings
She has no strength-training secrets. “People ask me that all of the time, ‘You are so little, how could you pull a 250-pound man out of the water?’ That’s why we work in pairs; and in the water, a person floats,” she said.
She plans to travel and volunteer after she retires. She and her husband, who just retired last fall after 30 years with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will go on an Alaskan cruise. Then she will volunteer at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach and Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter.
She also will ride her bike, hike and snorkel.
But she won’t miss the early-morning training.
Lifeguards take their positions at 9 a.m., but they start at 7:30 a.m. with training and seminars.
When she was first hired, she had to pass competency tests twice a year: Run a mile in seven minutes and swim 850 meters in 17 minutes.
According to Conlin’s supervisor, Lt. Joe Peloquin, each ocean rescue squad had its own standards back when Conlin started. But in 1996, the United States Lifesaving Association established a national swim standard for ocean lifeguards.
“Now it’s every six months, you have to swim 500 meters in 10 minutes,” she said. “And every year run a quarter-mile in two minutes.”