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Lack of Lifeguards Keeping Swim Clubs Locked Out of Kona Pool

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Kona Dolphin Swim Club practices at the Kona Community Aquatic Center swimming pool are capped at two hours a day, three days a week while the county works on hiring enough lifeguards to man the popular facility. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

X Rose, a 15-year-old from Waikōloa, has his sights set on the Olympics.

The tall, strong swimmer is a master in the pool, the breast stroke among his favorite events. His times are on pace and his progress on such a rise that his Kona Dolphin Swim Club coaches are convinced if the course stays the same, the soft-spoken athlete is going to make waves at the Olympic trials in the not-so-distant future.

“That’s the goal that I have,” Rose said recently before a swim practice at Kona Community Aquatic Center swimming pool in Kailua-Kona, where he trains – when he can. “I think it’s going to be good.”

There’s just one small, unexpected hiccup that’s popped up in the plan.

Rose can’t get enough lane time at the Kona pool to train enough.

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A lifeguard shortage has required Hawai‘i County to cap the number of hours swim clubs are allowed to use the public pool. So Rose – along with all of his teammates and members of other swim clubs, for that matter – is only allowed to practice up to two hours a day, three times a week.

That’s up to six hours a week on a good week. Other competitive swimmers in Rose’s age bracket, especially the ones on the mainland, are logging 20-plus hours a week, his coaches said.

“We do a lot in these short practices, but it’s not enough, it’s squished together,” Rose said.

To make up for the deficit, Rose trains on his own at the gym and by other means.

The teenager, who has been swimming for nine years, said he doesn’t feel like he’s falling behind his competition – he’s confident in his regime – but the lack of water time has prevented him from accelerating the way he’s certain he could.

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“I feel like if I did have more time I’d be able to get to that level faster,” he said. “It’s kind of affecting that.”

Michelle Axelson, a 16-year-old Kealakehe sophomore with first-, second- and third-place finishes at state events, already feels like she’s falling behind, however.

Like Rose, Axelson wants to swim competitively as the highest level she can, as long as she can. Also like Rose, she trains on her own at a gym to make up for lost hours. But she’s worried the lack of pool time is already costing her.

“Every time I come back to practice it feels like I missed a week,” Axelson said. “I’m already feeling it. And it’s really stressful.”

A dearth of lifeguards has hamstrung the heavily used Kona pool for years. The county has had to adjust operating hours at the Kona facility to cover lack of manpower stretching all the way back to at least 2017.

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It’s a problem, the county Parks and Recreation Department said, it’s in the process of fixing.

Right now, the department said it’s short three positions at the Kona pool. One lifeguard returns from maternity leave next week, leaving two positions to fill to get it staffed to the point where more lane time can be available to the teams.

“Which we are working on filling,” Parks Director Maurice Messina told Big Island Now.

Messina said the department is in the process of finalizing interview questions for the posting in the next two weeks. A typical turnaround from job recruitment to position-fill is typically three to five months, but they are hoping to have more lifeguards by Aug. 1, if not July 1.

In the meantime, the current limits imposed on clubs at the pool ( two hours, three days a week and four lanes) has been implemented to prevent monopolization of public swim times “and keep the available hours fair for the rest of the community,” Messina said.

“The teams can rent facilities outside of public hours to get additional practice time,” he added.

That’s a tall order, the swim coaches who rely on the pool said.

The clubs aren’t catered to kids who come from affluent backgrounds. Many of the roughly 110 swim members on Kona Dolphins Swim Club are on scholarship already, and the organization is in the throws of having just raised $150,000 of private money so the Kona pool can put in starting blocks, among other improvements, so the facility can be qualified to host state meets.

The county, with the help of Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, matched $50,000 for that project, but the clubs are still waiting for the department’s planner to coordinate a site visit with them to sign off on the work and get it underway.

In the meantime, the pool can’t host such events.

But paying out more money to practice isn’t a long-term, workable solution anyway, the coaches said. Part of the problem of training in the ocean to make up for lost pool time is hiring enough safety staff to monitor the perilous environment.

They just want to be able to use their home pool more often, the way other teams can use theirs.

“All what want is what’s best for the kids,” said Joyce Follis, head coach of Kona Dolphin Swim Club. “More opportunity. They’re losing scholarships and it’s literally heartbreaking because they’ve dedicated their whole life to this sport, and a lot of them knowing, they don’t come from money. If they do not get those scholarships, they do not get to go to college.”

Follis, who has been coaching for the last seven years and swimming at the Kona pool since it opened in 1994, said she empathized with the difficulty of hiring people right now. But, she added, the issue of not having enough lifeguards is “mind-boggling” because it’s been going on for years.

While the recent time cap is new – it was implemented after things began opening back up in March post-COVID – the idea of limited hours has been around for much longer.

“Staffing has always been the problem,” Follis said.

She said the lifeguards who service the pool now are wonderful workers who help their teams in countless ways. They just want more of them. Or enough of them. The groups held a community meeting recently which Villegas attended and one of the ideas that came from it was that they could help recruit applicants to fill the vacancies.

“We’re trying really hard to help,” Follis said. “But there is some kind of disconnect and we don’t know what it is.”

It was a sentiment shared by Dave Gibson, coach of the Masters Team as well as the USA Swimming Team, whose clubs are also under the cap at the Kona pool.

Gibson remembers fondly the times back when the pool was opened weekends and until 6 in the evening most days. Those days seem like ages ago, he said.

“It’s not even close to what it used to be,” Gibson said. “We thought it was short-term, but we aren’t seeing an increase in the time.”

More frustrating, he added, is the the county has funding for the new lifeguard positions, they’re just not filled.

“I get when the positions aren’t funded,” Gibson said. “But when they’re funded?”

Villegas said she understood the frustration of the swimmers and their parents, but the councilwoman opined the issue is actually a microcosm of the hiring issue the whole state is facing.

Hawai‘i’s workforce population demographic tends to flee the state every year, replaced by an older age-bracket generally relocating to Hawai‘i to invest or retire here. The county is experiencing in trying to hire what businesses everywhere in the state are: Difficulty finding a willing workforce.

“It’s really challenging that it’s flipped so dramatically, that it’s created that much bigger of a gap,” Villegas said.

The starting wage for a new lifeguard is $24,600, according to the Parks and Recreation Department.

A follow up question emailed to Messina whether the department had leads or potential lifeguard applicants in hand wasn’t returned on Friday.

Messina did state that the county is working on hiring new lifeguards, as well as working with the clubs on the improvements the groups is helping fund. The county is also following industry-standard surveillance duty rules when it comes to the number of people allowed at a facility per the number of lifeguards present. If clubs need more lifeguards to host a specific, large event, for example, they can pay  to ensure enough staffing is there that standards are met.

He said it was important that the pool was a shared space, and the department is trying to ensure everyone can enjoy it while they fill the open lifeguarding positions.

“Our personnel are also members of their communities and take a great deal of pride in serving the community,” Messina said. “Our Aquatics Section and these teams share common goals and we will continue to work together to keep our communities’ water safe. I ask everyone to remember that these are community pools and our goal is to ensure fair use for all users of our pools.”

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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