Brooklyns Lifeguard Factory Is Open Again

Brooklyn’s Lifeguard Factory Is Open Again

Brooklyns Lifeguard Factory Is Open Again

A high school in Bushwick is coaxing teenagers into a long-neglected pool, turning nonswimmers into competitors — and possibly a summer job in a lifeguard chair.

The Bushwick Tigers huddled in a circle on their pool deck, put their hands in the center and roared.

“1,2,3 Tigers!”

In a meet against Thomas Jefferson High School on a recent weekday, the Tigers, lacking starting blocks, dove off the side of the pool and gasped through laps punctuated by wobbly kick turns.

The Olympics it wasn’t. But then one might not expect to find a hotbed of competitive swimming — still a predominantly white sport — at the Bushwick Campus, four smaller high schools in Brooklyn.

Its students are mostly Hispanic immigrants or children of immigrants. Some still speak little English, and very few have backgrounds in swimming.

“It’s a cultural thing — many of us are not even comfortable around water because there are limited opportunities for people like us,” said Nile Borja 17, a senior from East New York, Brooklyn, who has become the Tigers’ strongest breaststroker.

“There’s not many places for us to swim, and swimming programs require a lot of funding,” he said, “so we’re just lucky to have this.”

By “this,” he meant the aging pool at the Bushwick Campus, one of a dwindling number of functional pools in city public schools.

The pool once helped enable Bushwick High’s boys team to become an unlikely swimming powerhouse and a main feeder for the city’s lifeguard system through the 1990s. Then the school divided two decades ago into four smaller high schools, and both the boys and girls teams folded.

Some students weren’t even aware that their school had a pool.Amir Hamja for The New York Times

Since then, the pool has been woefully underused by students, to the chagrin of Marvin Carbajal, 46, a Bushwick Campus physical education teacher who swam there in the early 1990s and benefited from the school being a longstanding pipeline to a city lifeguard job.

His years of efforts to get a varsity swim team reinstated were met with bureaucracy and apathy, he said. But in recent years, he and another Bushwick physical education teacher, Alyssa Taylor, began forming after-school and Saturday coed swim clubs, mostly for nonswimmers, part of an effort to reduce inequality among New Yorkers of color when it comes to swimming.

Then, this summer, word finally came that after two decades with a pool but no team, Bushwick could finally field a varsity swim squad again, with Ms. Taylor coaching the girls in the fall and Mr. Carbajal leading the boys in the winter.

At the first girls’ practice, in September, only one student showed up with the paperwork required to get in the pool, Ms. Taylor said.

But more soon came, and Ms. Taylor coaxed them into the pool. She first got them to put their faces into the water, then got them comfortable holding their breath. Then came kicking, treading water and stroke fundamentals.

“I don’t know of any club teams in Bushwick,” said Ms. Taylor, who grew up in Brooklyn and learned to swim at a Y.M.C.A. before eventually becoming a walk-on to the swim team at Brooklyn College in the city’s public university system. “There’s definitely a cultural barrier.”

The Bushwick Tigers are in the least competitive division the Brooklyn boys swim league. The they have a winning record so far.Amir Hamja for The New York Times

By the first scrimmage at Bushwick, there were seven swimmers, and then 12 by the first meet. Though the season was a losing one, Ms. Taylor finally fielded two dozen mostly competitive swimmers.

“We’re fast learners around here,” said Kyara Rosello, 17, a junior who was a standout in the 100-yard freestyle. Standing on the pool deck recently, she pulled over Jeniffer Montachana, 16, who recently immigrated from Ecuador. Jennifer has yet to learn English, but she had picked up enough swimming technique within weeks to become one of the team’s starting backstrokers. For the six girls on her team who spoke no English, she relied on other students to translate into Spanish.

If the girls wanted to compete further, Ms. Taylor told them of a local swim team whose fee started at $1,000, but none of the girls could afford it.

It was not easy to get students interested in the new swim team.

“Some of our own students didn’t even know we had pool here,” said Jorge Sandoval, the principal at one of the Bushwick campus schools, the Academy of Urban Planning and Engineering.

So Mr. Carbajal used a financial incentive. He guaranteed nonswimmers that he could have them swimming well enough to pass the city’s preliminary lifeguard test, offered every winter. That could mean spending summers in the sun making at least $16 an hour, he said, and also helping with the city’s notorious lifeguard shortage.

He persuaded more than a dozen boys to join — 80 percent of them nonswimmers, he said. Mr. Carbajal had to buy some of them bathing suits with his own money.

So far the team has won four meets and lost two. It has a slightly ragtag quality, but it is improving quickly. Though it is currently in the least competitive of Brooklyn’s three boys divisions, Mr. Carbajal vowed that the Tigers would finish first and eventually get a chance to challenge perennial swimming powerhouses at elite public high schools like Brooklyn Tech.

Marvin Carbajal was a star swimmer at Bushwick High School in the 1990s. After seeing the pool sit unused for decades, he persuaded the school to reopen it, and now coaches the boys swim team.Amir Hamja for The New York Times

Some members have gone from nonswimmers to competitors within weeks, including Stalyn Morales, 14, a freshman who recently immigrated from Ecuador. Within weeks of learning the crawl stroke, he was swimming the 50-yard freestyle in one minute. He is now down to 35 seconds and improving every meet.

Of course, with limited English, he sometimes needs Mr. Carbajal to remind him in Spanish of the race lengths. In one race, he was leading, but he stopped swimming too early and was disqualified.

At the recent meet, Mr. Carbajal gathered his swimmers for a pep talk and a reminder to watch their diets. More bananas. Fewer chopped-cheese sandwiches from the bodega. Outside the school’s main entrance was a police van with flashing lights, and inside were metal detectors tended by school safety agents.

Asked about the starting blocks, Mr. Carbajal said he had requested them, but that he was met with the usual bureaucratic delays. “I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

During the 200-yard medley relay, teammates cheered on the Diaz twins, Christian and Jaden, 16-year-old juniors from Ridgewood, Queens, who are among the team’s fastest swimmers and make up half of that relay team.

Hanging at the shallow end of the pool was a modest banner that proclaimed the 1994-95 Bushwick team Brooklyn champs; it had placed third overall in the city.

Those were the glory days, when Bushwick was an unlikely swimming powerhouse. Mr. Carbajal joined the team as a nonswimmer, and thanks to Richard Sher, Bushwick’s coach and the coordinator for city lifeguards, he was swimming within weeks and was a city lifeguard by the time he was 16.

“The school had gangs, drugs, crime — swimming and lifeguarding kept us off the streets, kept us alive, really,” said Mr. Carbajal, who entered Bushwick High in 1990, during the height of the crack epidemic. That year there were 77 murders recorded in the local 83rd Precinct.

“With all the drugs and the violence, the feeling was that nothing good could come out of Bushwick,” he said. “But there was a sense of pride that we had a great swim team, and we were turning out so many lifeguards.”

Now Mr. Carbajal sees an opportunity to not just compete for a new banner for the Bushwick pool, but also to give his kids the same chance that he had as a teenager with an uncertain future.

Amir Hamja for The New York Times

Lifeguard training was paused during the pandemic; last summer, the lifeguard shortage was a national crisis. Last summer, the city employed only 900 lifeguards — well short of the nearly 1,500 slots it had several years earlier.

The department is currently recruiting for its January test to qualify for the 40-hour training that is required before taking the city’s certification test.

Mr. Sandoval, the Bushwick school principal, said he hoped the swim program would be some help in this regard.

“We’re changing the culture and letting kids know they can swim and get a job as lifeguard,” he said.

As for Mr. Carbajal’s guarantee, he said he recently took 10 team members to the city’s test required for lifeguard training. All of them passed, including Bryan Merchan, 17, a senior who could not swim in November but now swims the 50-yard freestyle in 39 seconds.

“So we’re starting from scratch,” Mr. Carbajal said, “but our goal is to get back to be one of the best teams in the city.”

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