Noordwijk, a sleepy little town by the beach in the west of the Netherlands, is usually a destination for families spending their summer holidays riding their bikes along the windy promenade. This year, Noordwijk was an international hotspot and meeting point for lifeguards from all over the world on their way to become world champions in lifesaving.
My mum signed me up for swimming lessons when I was 8 months old and I started training as a lifeguard when I was 12. Two years ago, at the world championships in France, I met some Irish girls who motivated me to take part in this year’s event even though I wanted to quit swimming. Thanks to them I spent an amazing week in the Netherlands not only competing, but also exploring the country and making friends with lifeguards from other teams.
I caught a train from Germany to the Netherlands. Loaded with bags and equipment I attracted quite a lot attention and explained to some Dutch people where I was going.
‘What’s surf lifesaving?’ is probably the most frequent and saddest question I get asked. Surf lifesaving is what those people at beaches, lakes and swimming pools do, all over the world. The ones who raise a red flag in case there are dangerous currents, that keep your kids from drowning while you’re sunbathing and provide first aid if anything happens to you. The sport, or at least the competitive side of it, is a little different. Hundreds of boards, skis and people wearing weird coloured hats and bright pink rashies (rash vests) attracted lots of curious spectators in Noordwjik, who had probably never seen the beach that crowded before. At the whistle, a group of lifeguards ran in the water and started swimming towards different coloured buoys. Further up the beach, in a different arena, some women lined up with their boards ready to paddle out and rescue their ‘victim’ who was waiting out in the ocean for them. 150 km from the beach, the youth teams fought for medals in Eindhoven’s 50m pool.
A man asked me how much I get paid to compete, I laughed and said that I’m the one paying to be able to compete. He gave me a confused look and with an aching heart I explained that unfortunately, hardly any one cared enough about this sport in order to support it financially. So why is there a need for such thing as a competitive part of lifesaving? When kids are young, weekly training is all fun, but once they’re older — yet not old enough to work as an actual lifeguard— many of them drop out. Having competitions keeps them involved, it gives them goals to train for, makes them attend that extra training session and work a little harder. And what’s more motivating than knowing that you can even compete at a world championship in a different country?
Once you experience the atmosphere yourself, you’ll quickly realise that even though it’s a world championship, there’s no rivalry between different teams. A girl I met at a competition before didn’t have her equipment at the beach in time as the race started early. We quickly lent her some of ours. We met some Canadian guys and a few minutes later we were not only cheering for our team, but also for theirs. Before every single event someone you have never spoken to before would wish you good luck and say ‘well done’ after the race. It’s easy to make friends if everyone’s passionate about what they’re doing; suddenly you’re invited to come and train with a team from New Zealand or with a lifeguard in the States.
On our day off, we decided to cycle 30km to The Hague, where we not only got to see the painting of ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’, but also had the best iced coffee we’d ever tried and strolled around the Binnenhof. On our ride back we enjoyed a classic and very stereotypical Dutch sunset: the sun disappeared behind a windmill which was standing on a field of (unfortunately not blooming) tulips. After a week of competing in different parts of the Netherlands, having the best possible weather at the beach and cycling around the country, it was time to say goodbye: 17 hours on the train and €70 later, I was back at home in Bavaria, Germany.
Us lifeguards might not be able to live off our sport, but that simply shows that we truly care about what we’re doing and that the whole purpose behind what we’re training for is much greater than personal success. It’s not about winning medals and breaking records, it’s about meeting like-minded people from all over the world and working together to make our beaches and pools safer.
Featured image © Tino Stulen