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A half century of vigilance in the big poolside chair

Barbara Linnehan-Smith, Portland’s oldest lifeguard, maintains a steady watch for 50 years

Barbara Linnehan-Smith has been lifeguarding in Portland, Maine, since 1971. “I’ve always found water to be a really good medium for me,'' she said. "It was one of those situations where I really was kind of my own person.Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

PORTLAND, Maine – It’s been a half a century now. Fifty years. A long time. Lots of long days on the water, by the pool. Whistle in hand, sunscreen at the ready.

Eyes eternally vigilant, scanning the blue surface, on watch for mischief. Or for that kid who has ventured dangerously into deep water.

Or that weekend warrior who doesn’t comprehend the inexorable power of the water. Until it’s too late.

“You really have to respect the water,’’ Barbara Linnehan-Smith is telling me on this crystalline morning as another sparkling summertime approached just over the bright horizon. “When I go to the ocean, I’m nervous.

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“I think everybody has that respect, but you really do have to understand your limits. And the limits of what you can do wherever you are.’’

She should know.

Barbara Linnehan Smith, 66, is this city’s oldest lifeguard. And, as the days now lengthen and the sun grows warmer, she’s still at her post. Still on the water.

Still loving the job she fell in love with as the kid who rode the bus into Queens, New York, to learn all about saving lives on the water.

“I’ve always loved it,’’ shesaid. “I’ve always found water to be a really good medium for me. It was one of those situations where I really was kind of my own person.

“Individual sports are very different from team sports. For me, it just felt right. And then it turned into a job.’’

An important job that has stretched out before her. Year after year. Decade after decade. Honing the skills that she recalls practicing as a little girl.

“I remember when I first learned how to swim, I would go onto my parents’ bed and practice my kicking,’’ she said. “My breaststroke kick, or my elementary backstroke kick. I was very serious about it.

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“At that time, the Red Cross used to give you a little card and a pin. And I was so proud of that. Every year I would work up to the next level.’’

Spend a few minutes with Linnehan-Smith by the water and that seriousness, that determination, is impossible to miss

Colleen Lepage, the city’s recreation aquatic supervisor, knows the value of that longevity, that institutional memory, the deep and nuanced knowledge that Barbara Linnehan-Smith brings into the water with her every day.

“She’s just available whenever we need her,’’ Lepage said. “She can perform almost any role. She has done swimming lessons. She has been a life guard instructor, a first aid and CPR instructor.

“She can help on the rec side, the aquatic side. She’s willing to get up in the morning and do morning lap swims.’’

Across the years it’s become as natural to her as breathing, or, when necessary, holding your breath.

She was never a competitive swimmer, but she gradually found her footing in deep water. Lifeguard. Swimming instructor. Lifeguard instructor.

“I was on the synchronized swim team in college,’’ she said of her years at the State University of New York Cortland. “It was great. But I was pitiful. Absolutely pitiful. But it was so much fun. I loved it. They had underwater speakers. And there’s all different techniques that you do.’’

Over the years, she has refined those techniques, distilling them into the essentials of safe practice by the seashore or in the deep end of the pool.

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Wearing a gray sleeveless parks & rec T-shirt, and trademark red lifeguard shorts, she sat poolside to talk about life on the water and what she has seen from her lifeguard’s chair across all these years.

And how it all started.

“When I was in high school, I worked for a summer camp and then when I was in college you had to have lifeguarding certification and get tested by these examiners,’’ she recalled. “And they made your life miserable.

“You didn’t have rescue tubes. It was all hands-on. You just had to suck it up. And these guys would lift your legs up so you would sink. They were just nasty. You got so mad, you did it. So, anyway, I always worked for the county pools in college. And then when I graduated and had a full-time job, I would always supplement it with life-guarding.’’

At age 39, she married “the man of my life.’’ That would be Terry. “He’s the best guy,’’ she said.

These days, Barbara Linnehan-Smith is certified for aquatic therapy.

“I work with individuals who have had strokes, or have arthritis, or have kids on the autism spectrum,’’ she said. “Adults on the autism spectrum. And just use water as another medium for them. And then there are pre-natal aquatic exercise classes.

“I learned more about being pregnant without being pregnant by doing these classes. I was the instructor and my rule was: You cannot deliver in the pool. That was my only rule.’’

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She smiles as she tells me this.

It’s the smile of a woman who a long time ago discovered the power of water – the healing power of water, the therapeutic power of water – and found a way to make that the centerpiece of her life.

A life with a whistle. A life in the big lifeguard chair. A life of respect for the relentless cycle of the watery rules she has obeyed since her first lifeguard test in 1971.

A woman ready for another season on the water as summer closes in.

“You know for me personally, it brings me to my happy place,’’ she said. “It truly does. If I have an issue or I have something to solve, I go swimming and it’s taken care of.

“I need that time to be by myself. Kind of an escape a little bit. And just take a deep breath. And it really is my prayer time. It really, really is.

“It was funny, the other day, my husband saw that I was getting a little stressed about something and he said, ‘Do you want to go swimming?’ He said, ‘You always seem so much calmer when you come home after swimming.’’

That’s the sign of a man who’s been paying close attention to a woman whose life has always been in synchronization a wonderful life on the water.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.