Saturday, June 25, 2011

Legendary Lifeguard - Leroy Colombo

Having spent the past week training new lifeguards to our program, I can't resist sharing here the amazing story of a deaf  lifeguard I came across in recent months.

Leroy Colombo was a well known resident of Galveston, Texas. Born in 1905 to Italian immigrants, Leroy contracted spinal meningitis at age 7 and lost his hearing and the use of his legs. His brothers helped him regain his ability to walk, apparently by dragging him in the alley behind their house and perhaps also with swimming lessons. Deemed "ineducable", he attended the Texas School for the Deaf  in Austin for six years -where he was rarely seen away from the pool, breaking records for speed and distance. He was also an avid surfer, one of the first in Galveston. By age 18 he qualified to become an official lifeguard by swimming for 3 hours continuously, though he had been been saving lives on the beach there since he was 12 years old! Leroy singularly dedicated himself to patrolling the beach and watching out for people. Over the course of his life he saved over 1000 lives both on land and in the water.

Some accounts refer to Leroy as deaf and mute, others say he could lip read well and speak clearly. When someone strayed too far from shore he was reported to have blown his whistle and beaten his chest vigorously to get the swimmer's attention. He was well known along the beach as a friendly guy with a sense of humor, according to Donald Mize who researched Leroy's life and recently convinced the city council to name a street after their legendary lifeguard.

Stories about Leroy's swimming and lifesaving feats were featured in the Galveston Daily News over his life though it also seems many of his rescues went unacknowledged. He was a superb long distance swimmer and won many endurance races. In 1927 he completed a 15 mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico in 11.5 hours - only his brother also finished, 3 hours behind Leroy - all the other swimmer dropped out due to muscle cramps and jellyfish stings. Leroy finished a 10 mile race with one hand in Mississippi River when his shoulder was dislocated after 8 miles. In perhaps his most dramatic rescue, he swam beneath burning oil to rescue two crewmen from a tugboat on fire.

In the last year of his life, at age 61, Leroy saved 38 people. After his death in 1974, the City of Galveston put up a plaque in his honor. Pictures of him can be found at the lifeguard stations along the beach he patrolled and there an annual fundraiser is named after him. The Texas School for the Deaf built a new swim center which now bears his name.

What a remarkable American hero - more people should know about Leroy Colombo!

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