Almost 20 years ago Vic Maceo and I went to Veracruz, Mexico with a contingency from Galveston which included the city manager, Steve Leblanc, Gilbert Zamora, and others. Veracruz and Galveston had set up a sister city arrangement, so we went down for Carnival.
They were excellent hosts, but we felt bad because it was clearly an effort to entertain us all, since they were in the middle of Carnival. Vic and I wandered around until we spotted a lifeguard tower, and met the lifeguard on duty, Juan Gabriel. Juan explained that the program was new and had been started because of a rash of drownings. They were trying to figure out how train guards, operate a program, etc. They had a number of people who knew about the beach and ocean because they were fishermen, surfers, or swimmers. There were no programs near them, but they did have a model. A popular show called “Guardianes de la Bahia”. Baywatch didn’t provide them with a lot of useful information about swim standards, medical training, tourist relations, or rescue techniques. It did, however, garner a lot of attention from the local politicians, who provided resources for some shiny jet skis that couldn’t be repaired locally and no one had rescue training on, and some great ideas for uniforms.
Juan introduced us to the manic and politically connected, head of Civil Protection, Julian Flores. In Mexico Civil Protection is a catch-all for coordination of emergency responders, disaster response, and some code enforcement related to public safety issues. Julian had his hands full, but he was real interested in the lifeguard program because he saw the value for the tourism industry and the public relation possibilities. He explained that he understood it was ridiculous to have two jet skis while half of the guards he had were connected to local politicians and couldn’t actually swim. He saw in us a chance to change the game by raising awareness of what professional lifeguards do and to use outsiders to make the case, so he didn’t have to burn political capital. Through his efforts and political wrangling coupled with our knowledge of the lifesaving field, they moved from an average of 25 drownings a year to around 4 within a two-year period.
Fast forward 20 years. We’ve held some 20 lifeguard academies there and they’ve been to ours. We trained the Mexican Navy version of SEALS. We’ve stayed at each other’s houses, made rescues together, taken trips together, our families are friends, and he even tried to set up an arranged marriage between his son and my daughter when they were 5. More importantly, he changed lifesaving and public safety in the State of Veracruz significantly. Most importantly, we became lifelong friends.
I went down last fall with Lifeguards Stephen Limones and Bill Bower to teach an academy. Two weeks ago, Julian, a seemingly indominable force of nature, died of Covid 19.
He left a huge vacuum. And giant footsteps all over both Mexico and Lifesaving.