Sisterhood of the Lifeguards

By: 
Roberto Vazquez
L-R: Michelle Ferrill, Hanna Kawamoto and Carla Albano.

Gonzalo Medina is a proud man. As chief of the Long Beach Marine Safety Operations division of the Fire Department, he leads an organization with a storied history of heroism, sacrifice and excellence. Medina is particularly proud of the 2021 class of lifeguards, the first in departmental history to include 50 percent female graduates.

Medina stated, “It’s where we need to go, it’s not a choice. It’s about a department that mirrors the community. It’s ensuring we’re around another 100 years.”

In the early 1970s, the nation had seen the development of gender politics, including equal pay, equal representation, social rights, and most importantly, Title IX in education, moving from an ideological movement to general, widespread acceptance.

Dick Miller knows about history. He is the last of the Miller lifeguards, the “royal family of the aquatics community” and former chief of lifeguard services.

At 88, he is still spry, swimming three times a week.

Recently, he and Walt Halverson, a retired lifeguard dive master, arrived at Mothers Beach to celebrate the past and meet the future. Joining them were three women, each a member of the lifeguards, past and present.

In 1976, Miller was in his third year as chief of Long Beach Lifeguard Services, then in its 70th year, an organization that had changed little, including a grueling, mandatory 1,000-yard swim and an 800 yard run-swim-run fitness test.

Miller is the man largely responsible for making the decision that year to open the rigorous lifeguard test to women. As a coach of both male and female swim teams, Miller knew it was possible for women to do the job.

As fate would have it, he found a 5’3”, bubbly, unassuming young woman named Carla Albano. Miller chuckled at the recollection, and said, “A drowning person doesn’t ask if you’re a male or female, or how tall you are.”

Albano also recalled 1976, “I turned 18, three weeks before the test.” She added, “I came with a bunch of friends. I was the only one to qualify that day.”

Albano’s achievement would change the department forever, creating a ripple of opportunity for generations of women to come, including Miller’s late daughter, Melissa, who became a lifeguard in 1978 and was a seasonal guard for two years.

After successfully completing lifeguard training, Albano recalled the graduation. “I was the only girl ... 19 guys and a girl, that was me.” She added, “The management was ready… they saw to it that I was successful.”

Albano’s first day on the job was, appropriately enough, July 4, 1976. As the nation celebrated its bicentennial and the Declaration of Independence, there was another type of independence and liberation taking place.

That day, Albano broke the gender barrier, officially becoming the first woman in Long Beach lifeguard service history. Albano noted, “It was a defining moment in my life.”

Albano, who now resides in Florida, worked as a seasonal guard for five years, then became a lawyer later in life. Albano is the author of, “Soul of A Swimmer,” due to be released in this month.

Albano concluded, “Swimmers are a special breed. There is a soul that swimmers share.” Thus began what would become a sisterhood of the lifeguards, guardians of the sands and sea.

Michelle Ferrill joined the lifeguards in 1979, one of three women that year. Ferrill’s contributions to lifeguard history are significant.

She is the first woman to retire from the department, with a 35-year career. Ferrill was also the first woman in the Marine Safety Division of the Fire Department to join the dive team, the first to become an EMT, the first to work as a rescue boat deckhand and the first to go on maternity leave. Her son, Riley, was born on July 4, 1997, 18 years to the day she first worked on the beach.

Ferrill said, “It’s come a long way,” noting she had “unpaid maternity leave.” Like Albano, she had the combination of early swimming, mental toughness and perseverance to survive a male dominated profession.

Ferrill, who now volunteers with the disaster response organization, Team Rubicon, is happy to see how things have improved. “There’s old school and then there’s new ideas.”

The department now has separate sleeping quarters, but Ferrill recalls 15 years in her career with co-ed quarters, when women “used the broom closet to change.” To survive in this atmosphere, Ferrill points to the importance of attitude. “It was never in my vocabulary to say, ‘I can’t.’”

Where Albano and Ferrill represent the past, Hanna Kawamoto is the future of the organization.

A quietly confident soul, Kawamoto exudes joy when she says, “I love lifeguarding, what it takes to be a lifeguard.” Like the other women, there is no doubting her when she adds, “I can do anything I put my mind to.” For Kawamoto, the day at Mothers Beach was particularly special. She said, “I never thought I’d be part of this moment.”

Kawamoto is a member of the lifeguard class of 2020 and holds the distinction of being the first woman to rank first in a graduating class. An 18-year-old history major at UC Santa Barbara, she stands 5’0” and weighs 102 pounds, soaking wet.

She grasps the significance of what Albano and Ferrill’s actions did for her and other female lifeguards. “These women made my journey possible and the adversity they had to face is something I’m beyond grateful for.”

It’s a bright future, too, for those women fortunate enough to be part of this sisterhood, these guardians of the sands and sea.

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