I’ve written before about Leroy Colombo, the most well-known lifeguard to come from our island, but someone so larger than life deserves multiple visits.
We all know that he was formerly credited in the Guinness Book of World Records with saving 907 lives, the most of any lifeguard in recorded history. Most also know that he was stricken with spinal meningitis at age 7 which left him deaf and without the use of his legs. With the help of his brothers he started swimming to rehab and eventually became a champion distance swimmer. As a champion swimmer and the first hearing impaired lifeguard he is a real testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversary.
But it wasn’t until much later in life that he was considered a hero. As with almost all lifeguards it isn’t a career that leads very often to accolades. He did reportedly get a tip for saving a woman’s false teeth and for saving a poodle. And he got a couple of cans of beer once for saving a young girl from drowning. But there were hundreds saved without any type of recognition, even though he is said to have nearly drowned 16 times while making rescues.
He made his first rescue at 12, and by the time he turned 18 in 1923 he tried out for Galveston’s prestigious “Surf and Toboggan Club”. To do so he had to swim 3 hours without stopping. He officially became a Galveston lifeguard that year as well. We continue this tradition today with our “night swim”, the final physical challenge for the incoming lifeguards. All the staff joins them in completing a tough course involving lifeguard skills including swimming, rescue board paddling, running, climbing, and even some knowledge based activities, which can also be as long as 3 hours.
He followed the tradition of the Hawaiian “Waterman” (which included women) in that he lived in a way that was close to the ocean and practiced many of the disciplines related to the surf environment. In fact he was one of the first people in Galveston to practice the sport of surfing. His close childhood friend and fellow lifeguard, Ducky Prendergast, told me stories of how they used to overinflate long surf mats so they were rigid enough to surf on. We were fortunate to receive a wooden surfboard that he owned that eventually will be a focus point in a Lifeguard museum here on the island.
He exemplified the “Lifeguards for Life” motto of the United States Lifesaving Association. Even after he retired at 62 due to a heart condition, he kept swimming for the remainder of his life. That level of commitment doesn’t end just because the flesh wears out or the job is no longer an option. He’s a real role model for those who carry on with the tradition.
Hopefully those of us who share his love of the ocean and commitment to serving others through lifesaving will inspire future generations. He has certainly done this for us.