It’s a warm and sunny morning in Mt. Lebanon and, even before the Swim Center officially opens for the day, a steady stream of children’s laughter can be heard between the splashes. Swim lessons are in full swing and things almost feel back to normal.
“I was just saying that it’s so good to be back,” said Tom Donati, head coach of the Mt. Lebanon Aqua Club (MLAC) and the high school swim team. “It’s been good for the kids. It’s one part of their lives where they can have some normalcy.”
After a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mt. Lebanon pool reopened this summer. A part of the thanks for getting things back up and running—along with big props to the recreation department—goes to the Aqua Club, which helped supply much-needed lifeguards during a nationwide shortage, to ensure the pool could open this year.
“Over my career, I have witnessed firsthand how important and relevant a local swim club is to the overall operation of aquatic programming. Having a strong club and a strong relationship with your local club helps a community and an organization like Mt. Lebanon Recreation in so many ways,” said Tim Ishman, assistant director of recreation. “I can say that if it were not for the MLAC, what could have been a struggle in finding, training, and hiring lifeguards in 2021 was minimized. It is an excellent example of a great partnership.”
The recreation department needs roughly 70 lifeguards to staff the pool each summer. This year, Mt. Lebanon hired 40 new guards. Of that, 19 came from MLAC or the Mt. Lebanon Swim Team.
“The Mt. Lebanon Aqua Club was a vital partner in staffing the swimming pool this year. They held several lifeguard certification courses prior to the season, and that was key to our success,” said David Donnellan, recreation department director.
‘More than a just swim team’
If you’ve ever taken a lesson or dipped your toes into Mt. Lebanon pool, you’ve probably heard of the MLAC. They run swim programs for community members of all ages throughout the year.
“It’s a lot more than just a swim team,” Donati said.
The nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization started more than 50 years ago and operates under USA Swimming’s national governing body. In the winter, it uses the Mt. Lebanon High School pool, and in summer it moves to Mt. Lebanon Swim Center.
Swimmers of all levels can join MLAC. It has a competitive team where some members compete nationally. There’s also a master’s swim team for adults and piranhas and minnows pre-competitive swim programs for kids ages 6 to 18, along with a diving team.
“One of the things that I like about this team is that we focus on the long term development,” said Mike Kristufek, general manager.
MLAC also plays a vital role in introducing Mt. Lebanon youngsters to the water through their learn-to-swim programs.
Kristufek assumed the general manager role six years ago to help further expand the organization. MLAC also offers water aerobics classes and underwater hockey (yes, it’s a thing!) In all, he estimates at least 850 kids participate in MLAC teams and programs in a given year.
“The aqua club has been so good for the community,” Donati said. “If somebody wants to get wet and be around the pool, we have so many opportunities for them.”
While part of its goal is to help people become better swimmers, MLAC goes beyond that. “We teach them to be better people, be better swimmers and to be leaders,” Kristufek said.
Another service MLAC offers is lifeguard training.
“A lot of our kids, when they turn 15, they want to get jobs, so they go through the program,” Donati said. Many of the lifeguards are longtime swimmers who spend the mornings at the pool practicing, go on to teach lessons later morning and then spend their afternoon lifeguarding.
Many pools across the country had to shorten hours or remain closed later into the summer as they struggled to find lifeguards.
The shortage was a combination of several things, including not as many lifeguard classes being held during the pandemic and teens finding other jobs when pools closed last year. MLAC’s 2020 lifeguard class included about 20 people seeking certification, Kristufek said.
Being a lifeguard requires a commitment. Mt. Lebanon lifeguards must have American Red Cross certification. Lifeguards pay for the certification and must be re-certified every two years.
“It’s hard now. We’re competing with places like Sheetz that are paying better,” Kristufek said. “Lifeguarding used to pay better compared to the other places, but now you can go work in an air-conditioned place for the same amount.”
Mt. Lebanon offers $10 to $12 per hour for its lifeguards.
MLAC offered two lifeguarding classes this year with 20 to 30 people in each certification program. Another 20 members went to other pools to receive their certifications.
Lifeguards from MLAC work at a number of local pools. However, knowing that it was vital to have enough lifeguards to open Mt. Lebanon’s pool this summer, they made repeated pleas to their members to come work here.
Donati reminded the swimmers that if there weren’t enough lifeguards to open the pool, they wouldn’t have their summer practices outside because this is the pool they use, too. For some, they lifeguarded here because it’s their community pool and they want to be with their friends and see the pool open.
“It’s so important to have that pool open,” Donati said. “It’s something that we took for granted and I think now everybody in this community is realizing how lucky we are to have a pool like that.”