AT 79 years of age, there’s a fair age gap between John McKerras and his work colleagues – often around 60 years.
But Whakatane Aquatic Centre’s oldest lifeguard is not concerned about that. Lifeguarding at the pool is like working in a playground for the man who has spent most of his adult life around water, both as a voluntary surf lifesaver, and as a competitive swimmer.
“I really enjoy it,” says John. “Some people like tennis, some people like walking, or bowls.
I like being around water. It’s a great way to keep in touch with the community and I enjoy watching people having fun”.
Though nearing 80, John continues to add to his history of both swimming and surf lifesaving accomplishments.
As one of a four-member team of lifeguards from the Whakatane Aquatic Centre he competed in this year’s Regional Lifeguard Association event. Competing against Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo, Whakatane took first place.
Last year, competing in the Surf Lifesaving National Masters event, John won first place in his age group for the run-swim-run event. Adhering to the tradition of competing for the first club you were involved with, John competed for Palmerston North, the first of many clubs he went on to be affiliated with.
“There used to be a few guns that would typically be in front of me, but some of them have died now. And next year I’ll have to move up to the 80-to-85-year age group. I might win it,” he laughs.
John is a jokester, his light-hearted banter plentiful and fun. “I’ll talk to anyone about anything, and because people come to the pool for all sorts of reasons, fun, fitness, training, you get to meet all sorts.”
He’s familiar with all the pool staff and duly proud of the many accolades counted among them, including one lifeguard-swimming teacher who still holds a national record in breaststroke. “There are lots of people here more deserving of a story than me. I’m just one old bugger,” he says.
That John ended up lifeguarding at the pool is a story in itself. He and his wife moved to Whakatane just three years ago. He says there was an occasion where he couldn’t take his regular swim in the outside pool due to a shortage of lifeguards.
Laughing off the suggestion that he “needed a blimmin’ lifeguard,” at all, the incident set events in motion that led him to complete the training and become a pool lifeguard himself.
Though lifeguarding in the calm, still water environment, such as a pool, is a first for John, lifeguarding itself is familiar work. His involvement with various surf clubs over the years has resulted in countless hours of voluntary lifeguarding, alongside his competing in surf club events that continues today.
“I think I’ve competed in almost every surf lifesaving national championship since the 1960s,” he says. Competing in the masters over recent years, he says, unusually, he gave the event a miss this year. “We’ve just been too busy since we moved here, working on our house and other things. I just didn’t have the time”.
It’s the same reason he says he hasn’t become involved with the surf club here in his new town. “I’ve visited, it’s a great club and is very well run, and they’re not short of lifeguards.”
John’s competitiveness hasn’t been limited to surf lifesaving. He has competed in swimming events for decades, and for a number of years, was one of the four-person Mount Roskill Swimming Club relay team.
The team was ranked in the top 10 of an international network where regular sanctioned meets take place across the globe, and times are recorded. “It was a great achievement because we were competing against the Americans who were very competitive,” he says.
He talks of his personal vision for the pool complex, of how it could be expanded to include joint facilities shared with nearby sports clubs, of the complex growing to become a broader sports facility. And of his wish for the provision of coffee and muffins, “because everyone wants coffee and a muffin”.
“It’s a great facility though and lifeguarding there is a great job for me,” he says. “I don’t do it for the money, I can tell you,” he laughs. “You need to enjoy water, enjoy people, and have an interest in swimming to do it. And you need to be diligent”.
Though John says he hasn’t needed to dive in to rescue anyone yet, others certainly have.
“You have to watch closely; little children in the deep end that shouldn’t really be in that pool in the first place and that sort of thing. And we once had someone who thought he had already learnt to swim by reading a book and came and jumped in the deep end. You have to be watchful.”
Lifeguarding aside, he says dealing with knocks and scrapes, often due to running and slipping on the floors around the complex, or by children jumping into the pool and not clearing the edge, are a common occurrence to be dealt with by lifeguards.
“The sort of accident that would take me a month to recover from, but these kids recover so fast”. And the hot spa pools. “People can stay in there for too long, and then pass out when they stand up. I’m strict about that.
“If I think someone has been in there for long enough, I tell them its time to get out. I say you can pass out yesterday, or tomorrow, but you’re not going to pass out on my watch”.
Age, it appears, tends to be on John’s side. “No one gives me much grief,” he says. “If I see any one causing any bother, I wander up and ask them if they’re trying to piss off the lifeguards. I tell them they’re succeeding, and things tend to dissipate pretty quickly after that”.
Aside from his lifeguard shifts, John swims at the pool “several times” a week. “Free swims are a bonus,” he chuckles.
By Lorraine Wilson