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Meet Stephane Rebeck-McCormick

Today we’d like to introduce you to Stephane Rebeck-McCormick.

Hi Stephane, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
Whew! That’s a long story. I became a lifeguard in 1985, and my certificate has never lapsed since. I started at the swim club where my family was a member, then went on to the YWCA, where I spent twelve years as a lifeguard and swim instructor. Through college and graduate school, I always had a job at a pool. For years it was my dream to work on the beach, and I worked one season as an ocean rescue lifeguard in my native New Jersey during the summer of 2001. When I moved to St. Louis on September 11, the country was reeling from the Terrorist Attacks and no one was hiring for any “real” jobs. A few days later, while on a tour of the local recreation center we were thinking of joining, I got hired as the Aquatic Program Director. I spent eight years there, setting records for swim program registration and revenue each consecutive year.
In 2009, the upscale St. Louis suburbs were rocked by a drowning at a backyard pool party to celebrate the end of the school year. I was hired as a consultant on the lawsuit that followed, and in 2010, I founded Backyard Lifeguards, a portable professional lifeguard service specifically designed to serve private locations and special events. In the past ten years (are we counting 2020?) the company has grown to offer four lines of contractual services–schools and camps, private pool parties, open water events (like training swims and triathlons), and American Red Cross Lifeguard Training for clubs, parks, and other small facilities.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Ooof! Definitely not. I was used to working in vibrant (and wet!) environments with lots of people to bounce ideas around. So adjusting to working from home alone while I built the company was initially uncomfortable for me. I thrive in a team environment, but I learned how to focus and make decisions on my own without a lot of input or feedback, to go with my gut a little more.

Selling people on the cost of our services was tough too. Some people who want to hire lifeguards think they just need a person with a swimsuit and a whistle to watch the water and that they can pay a teenager a bit more than their usual wage. But there is a whole system that lifeguards rely on that includes equipment, insurance, standards of care, an emergency action plan, and more. We packaged that system to be able to travel, plus we took on the work of recruiting, hiring, training, uniforming, supervising, motivating, and evaluating a team of adults that works well together or individually. All of that has a cost. A single lifeguard doesn’t just “cost” their employer $15 an hour. Finding lifeguard candidates, and then making those lifeguards available and ready to respond costs so much more.

The choice to expand by adding services was always a deliberate one. We tried a few things that just didn’t fit. In the middle of the country, with so many requests for service at lakes, we had to consult a few different agencies to develop a curriculum for training pool lifeguards to serve non-pool environments. But now we do that extremely well, and our team members love that work. People ask us all the time if we provide backyard pool swim lessons. No, we don’t. We tried it, but it just doesn’t fit our model. There are so many more variables to providing ongoing swim lessons (regular scheduling, continuity of instructor, weather delays, etc.) that we just decided it was not for us.

Now that we offer four different service lines, we’re not so attractive to people around the country that may want to operate their own Backyard Lifeguards. There is huge demand for services like ours in other metro areas that have a long swim season and many backyard pools, like Atlanta, Dallas, Louisville, etc. We get asked often about franchise opportunities. That’s in our plans, but we may have to break it into smaller parts. Many would-be franchise owners want to offer just one thing. The most requested is the ability to provide lifeguards for backyard pool parties.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
When I was a teenager, I planned on lifeguarding until I got a “real” job. I never thought this would one day BE my “real” job. But now, I am a 50-year old career lifeguard in a field dominated by youth. I love being a lifeguard. I’m proud of it. When people ask what I do, that’s what I say. I’m a lifeguard. Sometimes I get strange looks, given my age. Some people may presume that I got stuck in a young person’s job. But I took on leadership roles so I could lead young people to do great work and to take it seriously. They are good at lifeguarding not in spite of their youth, but BECAUSE of it.

Lifeguarding teaches young people to assert themselves, enforce rules, take charge of serious situations, stay calm in emergencies, value fitness and healthy lifestyle choices that help them stay strong, attentive, and alert. It is a great first step toward careers in public service, health care, education, management, fitness, etc. It needs people to stay in the field a few years longer to mentor those up and coming young professionals. When I train lifeguards and lifeguard instructors, my husband always says, “You never know who among them is the next you.” That’s really powerful.

As a professional, and I think the same is true of my company as well, I am known for being extremely organized, thorough, and attentive to detail. We deliver high-quality lifeguarding services to places that don’t normally have them. For some, we far exceed their expectations. For others, they have no expectations. For example, many home pool owners don’t engage with community lifeguards because they don’t go to a community pool. So they think, wow, having lifeguards really gave me peace of mind. For the event manager or open-water swimmer, lifeguards have expertise in an inherently dangerous environment that makes people nervous. I like that we are a calming and trusted presence for the people and organizations that engage our services.

What does success mean to you?
Well, that’s easy. Even on our worst day, when nothing goes as planned, if we can say that nobody died on our watch, then we’re a success. Our work is to ensure that every family that comes to enjoy the water does so safely and goes home whole. That is what we do. We prevent and protect. We recognize and respond to dangerous situations and intervene before they worsen. We perform countless acts that the public would barely notice because they are not demonstratively “heroic”.

People sometimes don’t want to mentally go there to think that someone could actually NOT SURVIVE, especially when most people set out to do some water activity they expect will be fun. But the US drowning rates are staggering. There are an average of ten fatal drownings every day. That’s some 4,000 a year. For each of those, another 5-10 nonfatal drownings (20-40,000) are treated in hospitals, some with permanent injury. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1 to 4. And 23% of child drownings occur at a pool party. So we’re happy to be making a difference there.

Just the chance to educate people on that–in a school presentation, in wrongful death litigation, in an article like this one, or even after blowing a whistle to point out a hazard or correct unsafe behavior–I hope each interaction, no matter how small, advances a person’s understanding of the risks of drowning and inspires them to make safe and informed choices for themselves and those for whom they are responsible.

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