tips for guarding kids’ triathlons

This page is for volunteers working with me at children’s triathlons. It is mostly photos from Silicon Valley Kids Triathlons, which my lifeguard graduates and I guarded for ten years, but includes tips/stories from other children’s tris.

I received an email from one lifeguard shortly after a race:

“Hey Mary!,

Todays Kid’s Triathlon was amazing!

We did amazing work and it was an adrenaline rush all the way through.

Thank you for preparing us so well. Everybody was ready to rescue and we all knew what we were doing and looked good while at it.

Thanks again Mary!”


Lifeguards/swim volunteers set up the pool at 6:30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. race start

Typically 1,000 kids ages 15 to about 3 swim in, for example, 22 waves (groups by age), one start every ten minutes, starting at 8 a.m. with the last wave after 11 a.m.. The oldest swim 200 yards, most swim 100 yards and the youngest swim 25 yards (across the width of the De Anza olympic sized pool).

Every ten minutes a group of very loudly cheering parents/relatives/friends fills one side of the pool-side bleachers. Each wave of kids meet first in the bleachers on the other side of the pool, then as their race start time comes up, are escorted down to the pool, some hopping along the way. A few younger girls hold each others’ hands.

kids tri going to deck:

Triathletes often have their race numbers on their upper arms and their age on their calves. Two of these triathletes had the number 3 on their lower legs.

three year old triathletes:

Next the kids sit on the side of the pool. About one minute before their start they slide into the pool.

kids tri getting into pool:

They listen to the crowd shout down the seconds 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… hear a blast on the start horn, and swim.

Silicon Valley Kids Triathlon 2011 start: one wave of swimmers in the pool, volunteers at pool edge and the next wave of swimmers waiting in the bleachers

Most of the triathletes finish their swim as they had planned,

some with great strokes and flip turns, some with a modified doggie paddle. One year we watched a child holding a kickboard, kicking and pulling the lane line with one hand for propulsion.

guardingtheSiliconValleyKidstri: lifeguard silhouetted against pool of swimmers photo by Alan Ahlstrand, lifeguard instructor and volunteer of record for De Anza College

At the end of their swim, those who need help getting out of the pool are assisted by a volunteer:

Eric help from pool SVTK 2007: assisting kid from pool 2005 svkt:

And each athlete is encouraged to WALK please!, (not run), along the poolside and up the stairs to the parking lot where their bike is parked.


Why/when do the lifeguards get into the pool at a kids tri?

Many of the kids have competitor-class strokes. If we were guarding a recreational swim instead of a race, we would have pulled kids whose strokes were weak and told them they should not be trying to swim such a great distance. At a kid’s tri a couple of decades ago at a different pool, we were volunteer guards and the pool lifeguard staff was being paid. They pulled each kid who had any trouble swimming; we wanted to swim next to them so they could finish the race.

Our current policy at events we guard is that since it is a race, if their faces/eyes/actions look determined rather than scared, if they are getting air (able to lift their head and get a breath) are not coughing, and especially important, if they keep a somewhat effective kick and their legs do not sink, we let them complete the swim. (As needed and if possible, with one of us next to them.)


Occasionally a swimmer either waves for help or grabs a lane line and a lifeguard goes in to assist.

In the first case of a swimmer needing extra help one year, a girl swam to a lane line and raised her hand, the prearranged signal that she wanted help. As I swam up to her I said “if I swim next to you the whole way could you finish the swim?” She agreed and we finished her second 50 together with my rescue tube where she could easily grab it if needed.

Some kids simply hold onto the lifeguard’s rescue tube and finish their distance kicking with the guard swimming alongside:

svkt swimmer needing assistance 2010: rows of pool lane lines with one adult lifeguard and one swimmer in need of a rescue tube to hold on to and kick photo by Alan Ahlstrand Howard Ho Wai Mok assists swimmer at the Silicon Valley Kids Triathlon: lifeguard helps an athlete finish the swim portion of a triathlon

Jerome Ward assisting a swimmer: triathlon lifeguard swimming with a swimmer

jessica perine 2013 kids tri: lifeguard assists a swimmer

Thanh Huynh lifeguard kids tri 2013: lifeguard assists a swimmer

Laura Stark assisting swimmer: triathlon lifeguard assists swimmer


Most of the lifeguards and some other adult volunteers get in the water with the last waves of swimmers, ages six and under.

SVKTswimmers 6 & under and lifeguards 2010: 6 years old & under swimmers at triathlon getting into pool as and lifeguards wait in the water photo by Alan Ahlstrand

under six many lanes 2010: lifeguards swimming with kids at triathlon photo by Alan Ahlstrand

2012 kids tri under six getting in pool: kids tri climbing into the pool kids tri under six waiting to get in pool: kids tri 2012 youngest swimmers at pool edge before race

2012 kids tri jumping in: kids jumping into pool at start of swim race 2012 silicon valley kids triathlon youngest in motion.: kids starting swim race with adults assisting them

kids tri last wave in motion 2012.: kids triathlon swimmers

QUANG AND SWIMMER 2010: lifeguard Quang with swimmer at triathlon photo by Alan Ahlstrand Joyce Kuo with swimmer at 2010 Kids tri: lifeguard with rescue tube swims next to small child photoshop smudge tool used to protect child's identity

Herland Antezana and Jeremiah Chua at Kid's Tri: lifeguards swim next to youngest swimmers at children's triathlon photo by Alan Ahlstrand, Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Volunteer of Record for De Anza College

Joelle Cope with swimmers at Kid's tri: Joelle Cope with swimmers at Kid's tri photo by Alan Ahlstrand, Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Volunteer of Record for De Anza College Paul Barron and Bernadette Milan at Kid's tri: two adult lifeguards in the pool with two young girls at pool edge just before a triathlon swim photo by Alan Ahlstrand, Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Volunteer of Record for De Anza College

Mike with swimmers: Wendy with swimmer:

Ethan Wilkie and Ken Mignosa with SVKT swimmers: adult lifeguards swim with child triathletes photo by Alan Ahlstrand, Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Volunteer of Record for De Anza College

SiliconValleykidstriathlon2010: adult lifesavers swimming with the youngest kids at a triathlon photo by Alan Ahlstrand, lifeguard instructor and volunteer of record for De Anza College

If the race allows such devices, any child holding a kickboard or trying to use a noodle for support is not a great swimmer, and may be hesitant and need closer watching.

volunteertrilifeguardAlanAhlst.rand: lifeguard leaning towards swimmer supported by a noodle

Some devices parents think will support their child actually seem to hold their head under water more:

kids tri june 2007 swimmer with floatbelt:

Some are not that comfortable with their faces in the water, so they swim the race backstroke and need their head protected as they come into the wall:
protect swimmer's head tri 2007:

In a 2004 race Alan jumped in as he watched a doggie paddler go from swimmer to distressed victim to active drowning victim in under five seconds. The boy was paddling well, then stopped kicking and his legs sank. Finally he was dog paddling vertically, not making any forward progress and unable to reach the laneline only inches away. The young man in question, the parents and spectators might not have known he needed help, but a trained lifeguard does.

In this 2012 picture we see a young man with a faulty facemask who could not continue swimming, panicked and grabbed a lane line, and the lifeguard who went in for a assist:

lifeguard approaches distressed child with faulty face mask: lifeguard spots and approaches a young swimmer as he grabs a lane line and holds his face mask in the other handlifeguard assists distressed child with faulty face mask: lifeguard assists distressed child who has stopped swimming because his face mask was loose and/or filled with water

In 2013 a father swam next to his 4 year old son, who was holding a kickboard. The kickboard slipped out from his hands, the son grabbed the father around the neck and incapacitated him and a lifeguard had to rescue both of them at once.


This triathlete needed the comfort of his kickboard and a lifeguard’s rescue tube:

triathlete with kickboard and rescue tube: triathlete with kickboard and rescue tube


Between waves, some break time with a race supporter:

Sharkie, Ken and Quang: lifeguard instructors on a break joined by Shark mascot photot by Alan Ahlstrand, Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor and Volunteer of Record for De Anza College


see also: Tips for guarding open water swims