Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

The Old Guard: Dr. Robert Smith Keeps Lap Swimmers Afloat

Feb 24, 2023 10:09AM ● By Patrick McGee
Dr. Robert Smith

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Before opening the pool each Saturday morning, lifeguard Dr. Robert Smith, 66, inspects the YMCA pool for safety and writes the daily high and low on a poolside dry erase board. Shortly thereafter, early-rising swimmers fill the rope-and-float lanes and commence lap swimming (a scheduled event at the ‘Y’). The morning sun beats down on the gymnasium ceiling and the exterior door is propped open to the morning heat and a nearby park. Smith prepares for his lifeguard shift.

Smith takes his duty seriously, but the unwritten rule is that lap swimmers are a self-sustaining school—which makes his job easier, but no less important. He watches them closely, even as their paced, methodical swimming begins to resemble a swaying metronome. While always vigilant, he doesn’t shy from small talk or the occasional joke. His laughter echoes throughout the gymnasium, cascading with the rhythmic crawl of the lap swimmers. 

Smith had once served as a U.S. nuclear submariner and a tenured chemistry professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha. Now retired, he continues his civic duty via lifeguarding. Despite amiably conversing with the swimmers, he seldom discusses his past. Most patrons don’t know much about him, nor his track record of public service. He sits above the water, a mystery in swimming trunks; silver haired, whistle slung around his neck. 

“I hate it when they go under,” he said, adding that nobody has ever required rescue on his watch. 

Nevertheless, he’s prepared to execute a rescue. He demonstrates various rehearsed, aquatic rescue techniques with a red foam flotation device. 

“I use that to kill crickets. I get about one or two every week,” he said. 

Additionally, he deploys it to alert the swimmers when it’s time to exit the water so he can go on break—he frequently reiterates the importance of his breaks, which he uses to swim himself. He retrieved and lowered a human backboard—used to secure swimmers when a spinal injury is suspected—into the water to demonstrate another rescue technique. 

“These boards are a wonderful innovation [that came about] since when I was a lifeguard in high school in the 1970s,” he said. “If you can do math, you can figure out how old I am. We had whistles—which I used a lot because we had open swim.” 

Smith explained that he is trained in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, though he isn’t impressed with the modern precautions, such as the standard mouth-to-mouth resuscitation mask or vinyl gloves. 

“I am an honest man—and I am not using that,” he declared. 

He explained that mouth-to-mouth “provides a better seal,” and that in training sessions with dummies, it can be difficult to achieve the optimal pressure with a mask. As for the CPR gloves, he noted that time is of the essence. 

“You got to get it started. I’m not wasting time putting on gloves because every second counts. If Madison has a problem with it, she can fire me,” he jibed, referencing fellow lifeguard, Madison Craig.

Smith reiterated that he contributes to society “by watching people swim laps.” However, he refuses to oversee the chaos of ‘open-swim.’

“Kids should come in and do lap swimming,” he said, “but instead they come in and splash around in the deep end.”  

Smith warned that a lifeguard shortage threatens to close off certain lap-swimming hours, making his mission that much more crucial. His concern is warranted; last June, the American Lifeguard Association estimated that roughly a third of the nation’s public pools were affected by a sharp decline of certified lifeguards. Consequently, many pools had to scale down hours of operation, or worse yet, close altogether.

Smith has a personal stake in the yet unresolved issue—he and his wife depend on lap swimming for exercise and wellness, and his daughter is also an avid swimmer and lifeguard. The prospect of disciplined lap swimmers being deprived of exercise—for many with joint and muscle conditions, their only means of staying fit—inspired Smith to accept odd shifts and ensure the lanes remain open every morning. Most of the lap swimmers show their appreciation by abiding by the rules, maintaining order, and greeting Smith as they come and go.

Swimmer Tahni Kanago stood poolside in her swimsuit and towel, drying her hair post-workout. She noted that while Smith talks a big game about enforcing rules, she’s never actually heard him blow the whistle—nor has she ever seen him need to. He does, however, make his break schedule known and well-enforced. 

“He is focused on guarding. He lays down the law,” she laughed.

Eventually, Craig comes to relieve Smith of his vigil, and at last, he gets to swim himself—passing off the red flotation device like a baton between relay runners.
Craig, who hired Smith, acknowledged she could use more people like him in light of the present lifeguard shortage.

“Robert has been wonderful for us—he’s really been that lifesaver in the morning,” Craig said, adding that students can’t typically work mornings when classes are in session.

“Robert has definitely been our savior in making sure we have pools open in the morning,” she affirmed from atop her guard post.

Smith’s popularity extends to the YMCA aquatics office as well. Jasmin Samano, the former aquatics director at YMCA, is a big fan. 

“Robert does a great job as a lifeguard. He may be a nontraditional lifeguard, but he’s able to successfully save someone in the event of an emergency,” Samano said. 

“He found out about our lifeguard shortage and needs and decided to apply to be a lifeguard. Robert likes giving back to the community, and one way he does that is by being a lifeguard,” she explained. “There is a national lifeguard shortage that is affecting our community; Robert took initiative and is trying to help limit those effects.”

Smith is happy to oblige, though he’s not immune to the pangs of sacrifice. 

“The fact is, I’m getting fewer opportunities to swim myself. [To make up for it] I swim vigorously,” he chuckled. 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


Evvnt Calendar