The race to save a life

By Jill Marianne Arul

Co-captain of the NTU Lifeguards Corps (NTULGC), Tan Zhen Wei, 25, races back to shore during a relay event.

When she was 16 years old, lifeguard Lee Jayan jumped into the pool on her first day of work to save a drowning middle-aged woman. The woman, who did not know how to swim, entered the pool without realising its depth, and was too far out to be rescued with a pole.

Lee had to use defensive life-saving techniques as she swam under the panicking woman to avoid getting hurt. She managed to grab hold of the woman, calmed her down, and got her out of the pool safely.

Lee, who is now 20 years old and a second-year Civil and Electrical Engineering student, saved a few other people during her stint at at SAFRA Toa Payoh. Today, she is the president of the NTU Lifeguards Corps (NTULGC), which has trained some 20 new lifeguards every year for the past 32 years. The group’s motto is “the finest thing a man can do is to save the life of another human being”.

Besides taking on jobs at the NTU Swimming Pool Complex during orientation camps and private events, the lifeguards in NTULGC train to compete in three major competitions every year. Training sessions are held three times a week — twice in NTU and once at Sentosa.

With no official coach, training sessions are led and managed by the club’s captain, Tan Jun Ming, 24, a second-year student from the School of Humanities.

Lifeguards have to complete courses to earn their lifeguard certifications, which are similar to swimming certifications. They learn the ropes of using life-saving equipment and performing first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation in critical situations.

Competitive lifesaving

Captain Tan Jun Ming, 24, conducts training sessions for NTULGC.

There are two types of life-saving competitions held – still water and open water categories.

Still water competitions take place in Olympic-sized pools and mostly consist of obstacle swimming, where participants dive to the bottom of the pool at 12.5-metre intervals. Participants also swim with equipment such as fins, ropes and rescue tubes for 100m to 200m to rescue mannequins. Placings are determined by timing.

Meanwhile, open water competitions take place on the beach and competitors swim out into the sea to rescue their victims. They also use rescue boards and tubes, as well as surf skis, which are similar to kayaks. Unlike still water competitions, competitors save their team members, instead of mannequins.

These team members swim out to a marked buoy that is 300m to 400m away, and await their rescue. The higher the tide, the further the marked buoy would be from the shore.

Participants need to have an additional certification, known as the Bronze Cross, in order to compete in open water competitions. Lifeguards go through an additional two-day course, in which they learn how to cope with different sea conditions, to obtain the certificate.

Competitors dive for a baton buried in the sand.

These competitions also include beach runs and beach flag competitions, in which participants run and capture a flag on the beach to avoid elimination. Sprint events are about 90m long and test how quickly participants are able to get into the water to save someone.

 “It’s more challenging because your feet will sink in (the sand) but you just have to deal with it and try your best to clinch first place,” said Sarah Ng, 22, a second-year School of Humanities student.

Open water competitions are slightly more challenging than their still water counterpart, as sea conditions change with every round of competition and force participants to adapt quickly.

Competitors are split into two groups. The top four from each group are picked based on their timing in the heats, a judging criteria similar to that of track and field. These eight competitors battle it out in the finals, and a winner is chosen.

In preparation for these competitions, newcomers to NTULGC pay a subsidised fee and are trained to be certified lifeguards. The Corps takes in new students every semester for lifeguard certification. These recruits start off with basic swimming skills and learn how to use equipment, before moving on to more advanced life saving techniques.

Major events in the life-saving calendar

Competitor Wan Li Soon, 23, paddles towards shore on a rescue board.

NTULGC members participate in three major events a year — the National University of Singapore (NUS) Invitational, the NTU Lifesaving Friendlies, and the National Lifesaving Championship — held by the Singapore Life-saving Society.

The 2018 National Lifesaving Championship’s open water competition took place from 18 to 19 Aug. This year, NTU clinched five medals in the men’s Division B category.

NTULGC also organises the annual NTU Life-saving Friendlies competition for lifeguards from universities, polytechnics and other life-saving clubs in Singapore to interact and compete.

Although participants’ timings are recorded and ranked, medals and prizes are not awarded at this event.

“We have newcomers to the sport and we want them to engage in the sport without feeling the need to achieve something,” said Tan. “We try to make the sport as friendly as possible.”

Why life-saving?

Life-saving is less competitive than most sports, and it has a small and welcoming community, said NTULGC members.

“Everyone kind of knows one another,” said Ng. “You make a lot of friends that will stay in your life.”

Unlike the NTU Swim Team, where most freshmen have prior experience competing before joining, life-saving welcomes mainly newcomers to the sport.

NTULGC trains with mannequinns that weigh up to 45kg when lled with water.

Many swimmers make the switch to life-saving, as they think that it is more purposeful and interesting, as compared to doing laps in the pool, said captain Tan.

An example is final-year Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student Benjamin Tan, 24, who obtained certificates in swimming, before moving on to life-saving.

Life-saving involves a wider variety of events, and allows him to challenge his personal limits, he said.

Most of NTULGC’s recruits have a background in competitive swimming. Others are able to swim, but require more training to be stronger swimmers and improve their confidence in water, captain Tan added.

NTULGC aims to make all members comfortable and reduce the pressure of competing. However, many do not stay. NTULGC has about 10 regular members.

According to Ng, it is likely that this is due to the commitment of competing and training sessions held at Sentosa on Saturdays.

However, NTULGC pushes on despite having a small team. Lee said: “This sport is for a purpose. Other than competing, you can save lives.”