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Joe’s efforts earn lifeguard award

Masterton’s Joseph Whittaker, recipient of Recreation Aotearoa’s Lifeguard of the Year award. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

What started out as community service after a brush with the law has turned into an award-winning career path for Masterton’s Joseph Whittaker.

Whittaker, a father of four and lifeguard of over a decade, is the recipient of Recreation Aotearoa’s Lifeguard of the Year award, presented at the 2022 National Aquatics Awards, held in Palmerston North in August.

The award is given annually by Recreation Aotearoa to a lifeguard who has made a significant contribution to their facility and the aquatics industry, has demonstrated outstanding leadership, and is committed to customer safety.

Whittaker has worked as aquatics co-ordinator at “the small but busy” Freyburg Community Pool in Palmerston North for the past four years: Responsible for managing first aid incidents, inspecting water quality, organising rosters and training, and mentoring a small team of staff.

He was nominated for the award by facility manager Nathan Larnach, who said Whittaker is best known onsite for his gentle manner, ability to make customers of all ages feel instantly at ease, and knack for de-escalating “challenging” interactions.

Whittaker divides his time between Wairarapa and Palmerston North – working at Freyburg during the winter months and as aquatics co-ordinator for South Wairarapa’s three outdoor pools over the summer.

His introduction to lifeguarding was unconventional: In 2011, he was sentenced to 180 hours of community service, which he completed at the former Genesis Recreation Centre, then run by Community Leisure Management [CLM].

Manager Kieran Te Whare, whom Whittaker thanked profusely in his acceptance speech, was so impressed that he offered the young man a job.

In 2018, CLM lost its contract in Masterton, but couldn’t bear to lose Whittaker and his “outstanding skills”, so arranged for him to transfer to Palmerston North, and the rest is history.

Whittaker said it was “awesome” to receive the award in Palmerston North in the presence of his colleagues, and was so excited when his name was called that he jumped into arms of MC Spankie Jackzon, Palmerston North drag artist and latest winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under.

“I was so happy, it’s a big achievement. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and it’s amazing to have that recognised,” he said.

“I’m thankful for the people who’ve believed in me. Especially my family, who have been so supportive, and have put up with all the commuting and 140-hour fortnights.

“Being a lifeguard just started out as another job. But it’s become a career that I love. And I want to do what I can to grow and progress in my career.”

Whittaker said the most rewarding part of his role is forming relationships with customers, and seeing them develop confidence as swimmers and being “part of their journey”.

“It’s cool to see people progress. For example, seeing children get better as they’re learning to swim, or the people swimming for their post-operative recovery get stronger and healthier.

“The people are definitely the best part of the job.”

“Joe has the kind of personality which makes people feel like they belong,” manager Larnach said.

“Whether they’re a school kid or an elderly person doing aqua jogging, his priority is making sure that customer has an enjoyable experience.

“He’s great with our more challenging customers, the ones who try and push the boundaries. He always treats them respectfully, but gets the message across firmly and with confidence.”

Larnach said Whittaker is also well-liked and respected by his young staff.

“He’s very patient and understanding.

“A lot of the staff are young and this is their first job, and they feel comfortable asking him for general life advice, as well as with their career.”

“It’s rewarding to see your team grow as well,” Whittaker said.

“One day, they don’t know anything about working at the pool, the next, they’re helping train others and becoming senior lifeguards.”

He said his advice to up-and-coming lifeguards would be: “Don’t see your job as just a paycheque – the people you meet are worth way more.”

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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