In April, Barbara Linnehan-Smith was midway through her 22nd lifeguard recertification test at the Riverton pool when she was struck with a realization: She’s been doing this for a while.

The moment hit her when lifeguard instructor Ben Kim was walking Linnehan-Smith and three others through one of the rescue drills and mentioned when he’d first started doing the drill.

“I looked at him and thought, ‘Oh, buddy, I’ve got a few years on you,'” she recalled, laughing.

Linnehan-Smith is the oldest lifeguard for the city of Portland and is celebrating 50 years on the job this year. Even with a head of gray hair, though, she said she still feels like the 17-year-old lifeguard she once was.

“It’s funny, when I work with people who are teenagers, I don’t consider myself 50 years older, I just kind of think of myself as a peer,” she said last week while sitting in the shade of a tree beside Kiwanis Community Pool in Portland. “I really don’t feel that much older.”

Linnehan-Smith is three years into her retirement as an adaptive physical education and aquatic programs teacher for SAD 75 in Topsham but can’t stay away from the pool. On warm summer days she can be found walking along the edge of Kiwanis Community Pool with a rescue device in her hand, a whistle in her mouth and a vigilant eye watching over the swimmers.

She’s supposed to be on call when the city is short on lifeguards, but that has been happening with regularity. As with many other seasonal jobs this year, there has been a shortage of lifeguards, not just in Maine but across the country.

Even after 50 years, Linnehan-Smith still loves being perched in the lifeguard chair. Part of it is the physical and mental challenge of staying in shape, but it’s more than that.

“I’ve just always wanted to be there for people, and to help people when they need it most,” she said.

Barbara Linnehan-Smith moves a lane divider at the Kiwanis Pool in Portland on Frida. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Linnehan-Smith felt the desire to be around water since her first lifeguard certification test in 1971, and she turned it into a career. She studied recreational therapy and aquatics at Cortland University in New York, and started working with people with disabilities in the pool. That’s when she realized the true power of water.

“Water is the solution,” Linnehan-Smith said. “It’s the one area where you don’t have gravity to contend with, and you have that constant feedback in the water that you don’t get anywhere else.”

She’s spent decades teaching both physically and mentally disabled children and adults how to swim, and doing aquatic therapy with patients suffering from anything from traumatic brain injuries to multiple sclerosis.

At 23, she started an adaptive aquatics program through the city of Aurora, Colorado. Later on, she coordinated adaptive aquatic programs throughout the New York metropolitan area, and worked with deinstitutionalized adults in Rutland, Vermont.

In Maine, Linnehan-Smith worked as a recreational therapist at both Maine Medical Center and Orthopedics Associates and spent the last 17 years of her career as an adaptive physical education and aquatics program teacher for SAD 75.

Wherever she has landed, she’s always made sure to complete her lifeguard recertification.

“Lifeguarding was one of those things that saved me many times,” Linnehan-Smith said. “If I was between jobs, I could always get a job lifeguarding.”

Linnehan-Smith says that more than a few things have changed since she first started in 1971.

For starters, she no longer has to wear a clunky pith helmet at the pool, which she’s very happy about. And in terms of safety measures, just about everything is different.

“A lot of the skills I first learned, we never even do anymore,” she said. “Instead of doing mouth to mouth, we would push down on their backs or pull back on their arms. And we never used rescue tubes either. It was all a little ridiculous.”

Jeannette Strickland, left, and Barbara Linnehan-Smith have been lifeguards for 43 years and 50 years, respectively. The women stand by the Kiwanis Community Pool in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Linnehan-Smith is grateful she’s not the only older lifeguard in Portland. Starting in 1983, she bonded with fellow lifeguard Jeannette Strickland, who also became a lifeguard at 17 years of age. As their friendship blossomed, the two of them relied on each other to stay in shape for the job.

They swam the 2.4-mile Peaks to Portland even together, worked the pool, and trained to refine their lifeguarding before every recertification test.

“Some of the skills don’t come as easily as they used to,” said Linnehan-Smith. “But that’s why I call Jeannette, because we really kind of feed off each other.”

For the two pros, their ability to still be lifeguards is a point of pride.

“We’ve both kind of decided that we’re not going to let the younger kids show us that we can’t do it,” said Strickland. “And we’ve got the skills and strength because we practice and work hard. That’s all it takes.”

Jeannette Strickland, who has been a lifeguard for 43 years, teaches a swimming lesson to Callum Goldman, 12, at the Kiwanis Pool in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Today, Strickland and Linnehan-Smith are known for running a tight ship.

“People refer to Kiwanis as the ‘rule pool’ because we really enforce the rules there,” Strickland said. “And they say it like an insult, but I take immense pride in that name.”

Like her friend, Strickland’s life has revolved around the water. She’s been a Masters swimming coach for 20 years and has taught swimming lessons for decades.

“If I had all the money in the world, I would give everyone free swimming lessons, because there is just such a need for it,” she said.

Neither of them has any plans to quit.

“I’m just going to keep doing it until I can’t,” Linnehan-Smith said. “And I’d really like to be the one to make that decision.”


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