(Editor’s Note: The following is the latest in an ongoing series on the men and women who have spent their summers protecting all those who came to Ocean City for fun and safe vacation.)
OCEAN CITY — Most of the people on the Ocean City Beach Patrol grew up within reach of the beach. Even if it was a three-hour drive, they probably spent summer vacations in Ocean City, watching the guards making rescues and thinking about how that would be them one day.
This was not the case for Holly Gardner. She grew up about as geographically far from any ocean as one could possibly be in the United States. “I am from Kansas and had only been to the ocean once in my life before deciding to tryout,” she said.
She started making her way east in 1993, when she moved to Morgantown, W.Va. to begin her studies in veterinary medicine at WVU. Holly was also athletic and joined the university track team. One day her life would change when “a guy on my track team at WVU was wearing an OCBP shirt so I asked him about it. He told me about the beach patrol then finished with ‘but girls don’t really ever make it.’ Challenge accepted.”
With her sophomore year finishing up, Holly decided to take a road trip. “My college roommate and I drove to OC for the first time ever on tryout day in 1995 with $20 in the bank and no place to live. I passed the test.” Her only problem was she had no place to live. Holly remembers that “by chance, we ran into a friend the night after tryouts at Macky’s, who offered her a couch until we got our own place. That lasted two long weeks.”
Holly found a more permanent room in a chaotic house on 8th Street where she describes having the “best summer ever.” But it would not be her last in Ocean City or on the beach patrol. Each summer, Holly would return from West Virginia and school to guard another year. Even after she graduated, the pull of guarding kept her coming back.
“My most memorable rescue was in 1998. One morning while guarding at Castle in the Sand, I walked over the dunes and saw two kids way out in the ocean, quickly getting sucked out in a rip,” she recalled. “Lifeguards weren’t even close to being on duty yet. I threw down my gear, grabbed my buoy and headed out for them. Since no lifeguards were on duty yet, there was no back up. I swam past the closest victim and encouraged him to make it in to shore and went further out for his buddy. As I got out to where I had last seen the other boy, he was gone. There was no one anywhere. I knew I needed to start search and rescue, but by myself. After my fourth dive down, I saw an arm break the surface and raced towards it and pulled him to shore. He ended up being ok, just frightened and exhausted. It turns out the mayor and his family were on my beach that day and had witnessed the rescue and came to my beach to thank me and commend me.”
Holly would be promoted to crew chief and then to sergeant, making her only the third female sergeant in the patrol’s history.
“OCBP was life changing for this Kansas girl. I fell in love with the beach and the ocean, and realized I never wanted to be far from it. My time on the beach patrol, the competitions, the rescues, the mental fortitude, the confidence gained, the lifelong friends made, the memories, and all of the experiences have shaped me into who I am today. I met the man I married on the beach patrol and we have been together for 20 years. OC and the OCBP are such a part of our lives still, and a part of our three boys’ lives. Our hope is that at least one of them will carry on the tradition and follow in our footsteps (literally) to become lifeguards for the OCBP.”
Holly now lives in Hampstead with her husband and sons. She has her own personal training business and has been a CrossFit coach for 10 years. She still returns to the beach whenever she can.