From the high chair and along the swimming pool decks inside the Capitol East Natatorium, the lifeguards wait and watch for signs of trouble, which seem long overdue since no one has drowned at any of the city's 44 pools in the last two years. Now, with summer half gone, the confidence of the area's young swimmers is up -- and it is with reckless abandon that many of them go belly-flopping and backwards flipping into the cool blue waters.
A guard's whistle bleeps. A young woman has just taken a dive in shallow water, and although she comes up holding her head, she prepares to dive again.
"It's looks like she's been drinking liquor," the lifeguard said after smelling her breath. "It's just one of the extra hazards you have to be on the lookout for."
"Hey miss," another lifeguard yells. The girl he is calling does not hear him, so he runs up behind her and discreetly fastens her bikini top, which had become undone and was about to fall off.
"Definitely one of the pleasures of the job," the lifeguard says.
The scene at the Capitol Hill pool is extraordinary, with about 400 small children bobbing in and out of the waters and sometimes packed so closely together that it seems impossible to know what's going on below the surface. This pool is one of the most active in the city and has nearly 250,000 visitors a year. Yet its safety record is also one of the best, and it is the lifeguards to whom credit is due.
"We call it preventative lifesaving," says Mark Lewis, 22, as he sits leisurely atop a high chair overlooking the chaotic play in the waters below. "If you can stop it before it occurs, if you don't have to get out of this chair, that's what lifesaving is all about."
Says Lorn Hill, assistant program manager for the city's aquatic program, "We say a dry lifeguard is the best lifeguard."
The city's 180 lifeguards go through a rigorous training process, but nothing actually prepares them for the experience of controlling hundreds of kids in water.
"Saving lives is one thing," says lifeguard Dawn Ellis, who is 16. "Telling 17-year-old boys to behave is something else." Like the other lifeguards, Ellis has the authority to throw anybody out. She and the others try to seek alternatives to this last resort, but as the pool begins to fill to near capacity, the lifeguards uniformly take a tougher stance.
Whistles blow relentlessly. As the shallow end of the pool fills up, the smaller and usually more inexperienced swimmers are squeezed into deeper water and lifeguards constantly shoo them back.
The splashing, the shouting, the screaming and the jumping fill the air. A young swimmer begins to run around the slippery pool but is stopped by a lifeguard before he can fall. The lifeguard holds the boy over his head and threatens to throw him in the water if he doesn't slow down.
"Sometimes," says lifeguard Winston Johnson, 22, "the heat and the noise can make us crazy."
He puts the boy down and laughs to himself as he begins to walk around the pool. Suddenly, a commotion near the center of the pool catches his eye. There, three girls are being kept afloat by a group of boys but one of the girls slips free and sinks immediately.
Winston moves to the edge of the pool and focuses on the spot where the girl went down. She surfaces but sinks again. Winston dives in, spearing through the water. In a few seconds he reaches the girl, who coughs and gasps as he pulls her out.
"I was so scared. I'm so happy he came to get me," said Leilanie Moore, 12. "I guess we went out too far, that's all. I swallowed a lot of water, but I'm okay."
Johnson pats her on the shoulder and asks her again if she feels good enough to go back in the water. He warns her to be more careful and asks her friends to make sure she stays in shallow water.
Johnson strolls away wringing out his T-shirt with his head held high.
"Some days this job can make you feel like a hero, but mostly you get a feeling of relief knowing that nobody has drowned," he said.