champion polo shirts A career path on Lido
Jon Shields starts every day with a barefoot run along Lido Beach and a 500 meter swim in the Gulf.
Then, without drying off or putting on shoes, he goes to work.
For 39 years give or take a few brief sidetracks Shields has spent his days with sand between his toes, the sound of seabirds in his ears and the Gulf waters spread out before his eyes like an ever evolving masterpiece.
“To start every day like that is unbelievable,” says Shields, a Lido Beach lifeguard. “I feel absolutely blessed.”
He was 19 and a recent graduate from Venice High School when he took a summer position with the county at Siesta Beach. It was meant to be a short sabbatical from school and a welcome change from a coat and tie sales job at a menswear store.
But to someone who spent his childhood years in Rockford, Illinois, swimming in ponds and dreaming of living like Tarzan “in a loincloth with no shoes and swinging on vines,” this was as good as it gets.
“I’d never thought seriously about doing it, I didn’t even have the Red Cross requirements,” says Shields, 58, who was encouraged by a friend to apply. “But I just thought this was fantastic. From that very first summer, I loved it.”
He came back the following summer, and when a year round position opened up, college fell by the wayside. But he still wasn’t thinking “career.”
Over the next five years there was a stab at modeling in New York (one month), a stint in Colorado climbing cliffs and doing pool maintenance (one summer) and a year as a firefighter, a parentally approved future. But performing CPR on bodies he knew were lifeless while hysterical spouses sobbed nearby was not for him.
“I didn’t like it at all. For me, it was always heartbreaking,” Shields says. “And again, I was in clothing .”
Every day is unique
Much to the dismay of his father (“What are you doing?”) and the amusement of his buddies (“There’s the beach bum!”), he quit the fire department and went back to the beach. There were no openings in Sarasota, so he spent a year at Coquina Beach in Manatee County before a position opened at Lido, the only city run lifeguard program at the time, in 1986.
He’s been there ever since, stationed at one of the three stands or circulating between them. It was there he met his wife of 26 years, Tricha, on a blind date at a party by the rock jetty. And where his daughter, Alle,
now 23, grew up, surfing, boogie boarding and learning from Dad about water safety and beach critters.
As Lido’s institutional memory, he can tell you about everything from the public backlash that occurred when they outlawed topless bathing in the mid ’80s and the cops in Speedos the police department sent on undercover patrols when North Lido became a haven for gay men.
But most of the time it’s been just one sunny day after another. Not just the weather people who come to the beach are almost invariably in a good mood and Shields is, too.
But he’s also well aware of how quickly a day can get dark; all it takes is rough water and someone who overestimates his abilities. Two of those days he will remember forever; both involve men swept out to sea by tides or rip currents. One he saved. The other despite unprotected CPR that forced him to undergo a year of blood testing he couldn’t.
Thankfully, there aren’t many like that. Most of the time, the biggest strain is shrugging off stereotypical notions about lifeguards.
“A lot of people think of us as mindless bronze Adonises,” he says, looking like a bronze Adonis, albeit not a mindless one. “But you have to make split second decisions and be ready to react at a moment’s notice.”
There’s one stereotype, however, he admits to. He calls it a “fringe benefit.”
“Girl watching? It’s an undeniable part of the job,” he admits. “If you didn’t look, you wouldn’t be human.”
But even on the days when there aren’t any bikinied bodies, or cute kids to reunite with parents terrified they were lost, or yes, even on the days when there is no sun, Shields is content. If he were firefighting, he’d still be consoling the hysterical; if he were modeling, his career would be over, and if he were doing pool maintenance well, a swimming pool is not an ocean.
“One question I get all the time is, ‘Aren’t you ever bored?'” he says. “I am never, ever, ever bored. There’s too much to enjoy about it. Even on the coldest, dreariest winter day,
this is a beautiful place to be.”