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Society

The lifeguards of the nation

Tens of thousands of people owe their lives to Germany's lifeguards. The German Lifeguard Association is celebrating its 100th anniversary - and continues to urge parents to get their kids swimming at a young age.

Selma musters up all her courage to jump into the deep end of the pool. She goes completely underwater with splashes of water flying in every direction. "Good job! Gimme five!" says Claudia Stiewe, the lifeguard who grabs little Selma under her arms. Brave as Selma was in overcoming her fear of water, she still cannot swim in the one-meter-deep (3ft.) pool.

Nine pairs of eyes at the edge of the pool follow every move Selma makes. Five little girls and five little boys are being tested by lifeguards of the German Lifeguard Association (DLRG) at a Hamburg public pool.

Swimming in pajamas

Today, the kids are allowed to do something which is normally forbidden: get into the water with their pajamas on. The aim is for them to realize how difficult it is to move around in the water with clothing on. "It feels strange," they all agree.

Marco practices the 'starfish' with his pajamas on
Copyright: DLRG

Marco practices the 'starfish' with his pajamas on

"Into the water - but safely!" is the name of the class in which DLRG instructors try to tame the fear of water some children have.

In this case, Claudia Stiewe and Melanie Landsberg have been working with the kids for eight weeks. But these are not swimming lessons.

"This is the first stage," says Melanie Landsberg. "It's about getting used to the water before one even learns to swim." Once they've passed this class, they can move on to "real" swimming lessons.

Selma continues her test. "Lie down, and stretch out your legs," Stiewe tells the little girl. Then she explains the next stage of the test: the "starfish." Selma is supposed to float around on her back for 10 seconds, with her arms and legs stretched out. It's an exercise that can help people who are not good swimmers to stay afloat until someone can come to the rescue.

Lifeguards and instructors try to help kids overcome their fear of water
Copyright: DLRG

Lifeguards and instructors try to help kids overcome their fear of water

Fewer drownings

In 2012, 383 people drowned in Germany - the lowest number since the DLRG was founded in 1913. "We realized that over 40 percent of elementary school children cannot swim properly," said Landsberg. "That proportion is concentrated in the poor areas of Hamburg."

Selma must now undertake her final task: fetching a baton from the bottom of the pool in which the water reaches her shoulders. But the little girl is frightened. She needs a great deal of encouragement and pep-talking before she goes under, but she comes up with the baton in her hand. She did it! Floating, breathing, feeling safe, jumping in, and diving underwater - those are the five things the children have been practicing. "I push them, but I don't push them too hard," says Stiewe, explaining the way she teaches them.

"Every German - a swimmer"

1912 saw the collapse of a pier on Rügen, in which 17 died from drowning Copyright: The Dr. Harald Jatzke Collection

1912 saw the collapse of a pier on Rügen, in which 17 died from drowning

Some 100 years ago, only two to three percent of Germans could swim. Some 5,000 people died from drowning every year.

In the summer of 1912, for instance, a tragic accident occurred when a 500-meter-long pier on the island of Rügen collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 17 people by drowning.

That prompted the founding of the DLRG in the autumn of 1913. "Every German should be a swimmer, every swimmer a rescuer" the founders used as their slogan. That meant that people learned to swim, as well as save other people from drowning.

Nowadays, DLRG lifeguards keep watch at the ocean, at lakes, at rivers and at swimming pools across the nation. And in the years since 1950, they have saved the lives of some 60,000 people. The association currently has over half a million members.

Learning to swim in a playful way

A DLRG boat brings lifeguards out into the ocean
Copyright: DLRG

DLRG lifeguards to the rescue

While the DLRG celebrated its 100th anniversary with a huge boat parade, the lifeguards also protested the closing down of public swimming pools. They want to see children, like Selma, learn how to swim.

Marco has meanwhile surfaced in the Hamburg pool, showing the baton proudly in his hand.

"When we first started this class, the kids were terrified," says Angelika Taube, another instructor. "Some of them even cried." But that's completely disappeared - now, the kids splash around in the water like there's nothing to it.

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