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Competitive lifeguards struggle to stay afloat in Canada

Staying in top form takes physical and financial toll

Like paramedics and firefighters, lifeguards are often the first to respond to an emergency, frequently witnessing the distressed victim they rush to save.

Around the globe, life-saving competitions challenge and refine the skills of Vancouver lifeguards like Gail Findlay-Shirras. These international championship events attract the best athletes-who patrol beaches and pools in Italy, Australia, Brazil and beyond-and she believes Canadians should be paid like other amateur athletes travelling to represent their country.

"After racing at world championships in Egypt last October, I came to realize how unfortunate Canadians were, in that most countries there competed for free with the support [and] financial backing from their governments who appreciated the value of a humanitarianbased sport," she told the Courier. In other words, she stressed, "We race to save lives and educate." She says the government should help pay to send Canadian lifeguards to competitions.

Smack in the middle of national drowning prevention week, she is emphasizing the physical and financial requirements of staying in top form at the water's edge.

Findlay-Shirras, who will swim the nine-kilometre English Bay Challenge this Sunday, must foot the bill to send herself to South Africa for the Commonwealth Lifesaving Championship this fall. At the same event in 2006, she came home with the gold medal for the 100-metre tow, a real-life demand of all lifeguards.

"I am struggling to raise $4,000 to send myself there as part of the Canadian National Team," she said.

Findlay-Shirras is pushing for a national sport organization to unite the provincial bodies like B.C.'s Lifesaving Society and financially support the country's competitive guards. Competition rewards lifeguards who are fit, smart and skilled, she said. In her case, however, she needs time off work to train seriously and must subsidize her income as a city lifeguard.

"We're encourage to get involved and it's seen as valuable to get in shape. We can reach our victims faster and more effectively save our victims."

But the merit of treating the profession as a sport goes beyond mere competition, she said. Demanding the most of lifeguards is ultimately about keeping swimmers safe.

"I really believe in teaching people to swim at a young age. A lot of countries use the sport side of thing to highlight water safety."

The plea from Findlay-Shirras comes as she prepares for Commonwealth competition against perennial lifesaving champs, Australia and New Zealand. It also comes as the Lifesaving Society, which turns 80 this year, and the B.C. Coroners Service remind British Columbians about water safety.

Annually more drowning deaths are recorded in July and August than the rest of the year. In 2010, 43 people drowned in B.C. waters. Nearly half the number of deaths happened while boating and a quarter involved swimmers. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 40 per cent of people who die on the water are impaired by drugs or alcohol.

To stay safe on the water this summer, the B.C. Coroners Service provides these valuable tips to consider:

Never consume alcohol before or during swimming, boating or other water activities.

When boating, ensure everyone is wearing an appropriately sized PFD or lifejacket and that the operator has a Pleasure Craft Operator Card.

Closely supervise children when swimming, bathing or playing around water.

Be cautious about swimming in currents and know what to do if you get into trouble.

If you have a backyard pool, ensure it is fenced on all four sides. Clear all toys out of the water and away from the edge so they can't tempt children.

Know how to respond in an emergency by taking First Aid or CPR training.

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Twitter: @MHStewart