OCEAN CITY – Thirty years ago the beaches in Ocean City were covered with people enjoying the sun, the sand and of course the water. Among the crowds stood the lifeguard stands, with guards vigilantly watching the beaches and the waters. This scene may seem similar to what can be seen today when one walks out onto the beach, but there is one major difference, 30 years ago there was not a single female lifeguard; that is until Susan Cain paved the way.
In an interview with The Dispatch, Susan Cain, now Susan Gerstan, recalled the three summers she spent in Ocean City, and the path that took her to becoming the first female lifeguard in Ocean City.
Gerstan came to the resort in 1977 from the Indiana University of Pennsylvaniaa. Already an avid swimmer, she immediately fell in love with the ocean, swimming up and down the beach daily. Although she had experience as a pool lifeguard and as a member of the school’s swim team, she was unsure of becoming a beach lifeguard her first summer in Ocean City. Instead she put in hours at night at the Montego Bay Supermarket, spending her days in the ocean.
Gerstan explained that she used to swim the beach everyday, usually in front of the same group of lifeguards. After watching her prowess in the water, a lifeguard approached her and asked her if she wanted to swim the length of the Boardwalk with a few of his buddies.
“I thought ‘hey that sounds fun’ even though I had no idea it was two miles,” Gerstan said.
Despite the two-mile stretch, she kept up with the guards.
“I found myself wondering, ‘hey if I can swim with these guys why can’t I have their jobs too?’ That’s when I said I’ll give it a try,” Gerstan said.
The following year Gerstan joined the other hopefuls on the beach in May, hoping desperately that she would make the cut and spend her summer sitting in the coveted lifeguard stand. Although she was the only girl at the tryouts, and although she had a vague inkling that if she passed she would be the first female guard, she pushed it all out of her mind, focusing on the monumental task at hand.
Gerstan explained that the test involved swimming 500 yards in under 10 minutes.
“I just remember it was so cold in the water that day,” she said.
The rest of the test included soft sand runs, standard water safety rescues, fireman carries out of the water and simulated pool rescues where they had to save someone who was dragging them underwater.
At the end of the day, Gerstan had passed with flying colors, becoming Ocean City’s first female lifeguard.
“I remember lying in the sand at the end of the day, just soaking up the sun,” she said of her victory.
In an interview, nearly 30 years ago, Susan described how it felt to pass the test.
“It’s a personal accomplishment, but I’m sure anyone who just made the beach patrol felt the same as me,” she said modestly.
Long Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Robert S. Craig remembers Gerstan’s accomplishment as well.
“She was very capable,” he said. “She was very proficient at her swimming.”
With the beach patrol changing, and a female finally taking the stand, the question remained as to whether a female guard would be accepted.
“Once you pass the test, you’re a member of the beach patrol, no matter what your age, race, or sex,” Craig said, adding that he doesn’t remember any negative feelings among the lifeguards.
Gerstan said that if there was any negativity among guards it certainly wasn’t directed at her.
“All in all the crew was just great, we made a good team,” she said.
“It was a really exciting time for me,” Gerstan remembers, “It was so much something that I wanted to do.”
With the excitement however came responsibility. As the first female guard, Gerstan knew that she had a few things to prove. Although she had her crew backing her up, she knew she had to prove herself to the beach patrons.
“I absolutely had to set an example to the people down in the sand. There was some skepticism on their part. I know they were wondering ‘how is this girl going to rescue me’,” she said.
At 110 pounds, people questioned whether the tan pixie perched in the stand would be able to pull them to safety.
“I knew I didn’t want to let the beach patrol down, they put their faith in me,” she said.
Gerstan proved to be an excellent guard, pulling people out of the water and making a handful of saves her first summer.
“There wasn’t any situation that I wasn’t able to handle,” she remembers, “But every time you go into the water there’s always that same adrenaline rush.”
Gerstan remembers all the members of her crew and all the friends that she made on the beach patrol. At the end of the first summer, her entire crew even wore pink swim caps at the end of the year crew competitions to show team unity.
Gerstan spent two summers guarding the beaches of Ocean City, enjoying every minute of it.
“I knew that just once wasn’t enough,” Susan said of her decision to return for another year.
The following year also brought another female lifeguard, the second of many female lifeguards to come. Today female lifeguards can be spotted in stands up and down the beaches of Ocean City. Female guards have also climbed the ranks to Sergeant since Susan stepped into the role as the first female lifeguard.
“It’s something that I’m so glad that I did, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, it really is a great organization,” Gerstan said fondly.
Today Gerstan can be found in Illinois, far from the beaches of Ocean City in body but never in spirit.
“Send my love to Ocean City,” Gerstan said at the end of the interview, adding that she never stops missing the beautiful beaches that she guarded for two summers nearly 30 years ago.