"It can be cutthroat," says Courtney Harrough, 24, a certified deep-water lifeguard, writer, and server in Orlando, FL. "The reality is that it's a physically demanding job, and you need stamina and resilience to keep up." For starters, you have to know how to give first aid and practice life-saving skills, in and around water; rescue a victim who's drowning; swim proficiently; and perform CPR or use an AED at a moment's notice. And you have to be able to do all this in the burning hot sun, while keeping vigilant eye contact on the pool. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, and it takes weeks to complete training and testing.
Harrough, who swam competitively and played water polo in high school, says her peers weren't necessarily welcoming throughout the training process, and some people had no qualms making unwelcome comments about her body. "A woman my height, but three times smaller than me said, 'I find it hard to believe you were an athletic swimmer,'" Harrough says. But for better or for worse, she's used to dealing with comments like this and proving other people wrong. "If you're a plus-size woman presenting to a company, not just for an athletic-based career, you face a stigma that if you're fat, you're lazy."
Harrough spoke candidly about what it's really like to be a plus-size deep water lifeguard — and exactly how to respond when someone says that you can't.
When your second round of interviews requires you to get a little wet, don't mind me. 🌴 - How many times have you set your sights on a job, a position in life and doubted yourself? Uh- I have done that MANY times! Yesterday in my interview I was met with such excitement that I wanted to be a lifeguard by the board of my prospective employers. They informed me the Deep Water position is rigorous and can be tiring at times, I answered with a resounding "I have no doubt I can rise to the occasion and swim with the best of them!" My weight and height may cause some to think that I'd only be a pleasantly perched beached whale upon a lifeguard stand - but that isn't the case. My body is strong, sturdy, and sexy! I don't have smooth legs, or cut shoulders accented by tiny boobs like most of the girls in my class but I have courage, and a spirit to try. That is all is takes in this world. Carry yourself with courage my dear friends and do not let your size, shape, weight, or height be a factor of fear to your future endeavors! 🙌🏻 - Wish me luck as I dive in to save some folks and swim my butt off for a deep water lifeguard position. 🌤🌊
How'd you get into lifeguarding? Were you always a swimmer or was it something you discovered as an adult?
"I've been in water sports since I was younger. I was a competitive swimmer, and in a women's water polo league. I grew up in and around water because my mom was a professional swimmer. In Orlando, it's hard to find a minimum-wage job to live off of, and lifeguarding pays good money — even though it's physically and mentally demanding, and you have to know how to save a person."
Has anyone ever doubted your ability to do your job? What do you say to them in those instances?
"I try my hardest not to be nasty to people. I said [to the woman who said she doubted I was a swimmer], 'I think what's cool about the human body is it takes different shapes and forms, and is capable of different things. Your background is freestyle, so you need to be lean and long. Mine is water polo, so it helps being hefty and strong. We've manifested strength in different ways; you're more streamlined, and mine is more outward.'
"When I went through training, I passed, and there was no question as to what my weight could do. But when it came time for actually implementing my job, they had no uniform for me. They said, 'You don't look like a regular lifeguard, we're going to have to pull you from your job.' I said, 'I'm sorry, you're not going to pull me. If my weight was such an aesthetic issue, you would've seen it, because I've been half-naked in a swimsuit. If you knew you couldn't accommodate, you shouldn't have put me through this. And you're not going to fire me, because that's discrimination. We're going to figure out how to get it done.'"
How did you resolve the swimsuit issue?
"I had to wear my own swimsuit, which I bought out of my own pocket. They gave me a men's shirt, and I had to purchase my own shorts because they weren't willing to reimburse. They said, 'We never assumed a person of your size would want a job like this.' I said, 'Oh good.'
"If it's a matter of my ability to perform my job, that's one thing. If it's aesthetics, you're fat-shaming and size-shaming. And you're being really rude, because fat people can do so much more than we think they can. Fat women have a right to lifeguard."
Baywatch is coming out this week — that franchise has obviously influenced many of our perceptions about lifeguards. What's the biggest misconception you think people have?
"That you have to look perfect in order to save somebody. Nobody cares what you look like when they're near death and just want to be saved. You don't have to have your boobs perky or your cellulite hidden — all they care about is if you can swim and whether you have their back.
"I will go see the movie because I'm all about a stupid comedy. I love Dwayne Johnson. It's sad because that movie will further ingrain in the minds of other people — especially aspiring lifeguards or trainers — that they couldn't possibly fit in and be considered capable or valuable in that field of work. Obviously they are, I've proven it. It'll be harder on me, and it won't be perfect. But if you love it and want to better lives and keep safe, it doesn't matter.
"A huge misconception is that lifeguards are dumb oafs who look really good. You need to be a human with patience and heart for other people. I sacrifice all the energy I have in my body to help someone be safe — that's what the job should be."
I PASSED MY DEEP WATER LIFEGUARD TEST! This is what it looks like to bust your butt for two days in a row in an effort to get where you want to be. I hoisted my 300lb body out of 10ft deep pools repeatedly, rescued people, and battled fatigue. Bruising, cuts, blood, blisters, and burns are the result of these past two days. Do not let your weight, size, shape, or fear keep you from owning your life!! ❤️💕❤️ I hope I can be of an example to everyone who is in a class that may seem more physically capable than you. You are JUST as capable - do not give up.
What advice would you give someone who's interested in lifeguarding, but is worried that their body would make it off-limits?
"The message, in general, extends beyond the beach. I would tell people that you can be a leader — of yourself and others — even if you're not fit. You can be so much more than what you think you can. Have inner strength, and people who uplift you, that's the overarching thing that I hope bleeds out. Find your niche, your good people, and know that your body is your friend.
"Breathe and remember that your body has never been in the way. It got you here, wherever you find yourself. Your body is your biggest ally, it keeps you safe and alive. It harnesses all the things you want to accomplish, and it's your friend. Whoever doesn't see it like that isn't your friend, so go find new ones."