Denisa Polaskova has a passion for rescuing abused animals.
In her hometown of Znojmo, Czech Republic, she studies accounting and advocates for animal rights in her free time. She’s also a lifeguard at a community pool in Ashburn.
This year, Polaskova is working for the Alexandria-based company High Sierra Pools, which manages private pools for hotels, apartments, community centers and condominiums across the county. The U.S. State Department’s J-1 visa summer work travel program allows her to work in the U.S. for four months, then stay in the country for another month and use some of her savings to sight-see.
High Sierra Pools hires 1,500 lifeguards per year, and around 900 are international students like Polaskova. International lifeguard candidates already have to be strong swimmers and have near-fluency in English. High Sierra will train them in basic rescue skills, first aid, CPR and customer service.
“It gives them an opportunity to come to the United States that they otherwise might never have,” High Sierra Human Resources Director Adrienne Barile said. “It’s a chance to come here and work at a program that is pretty much self-funded.”
Polaskova has traveled the world, from Germany to Bulgaria to Tunisia. But she wanted to experience American culture.
“I love the water, I love nature, I love being outside,” she said.
David Kriz is a second-year international lifeguard, also from the Czech Republic, who is currently studying to be a surgeon. His whole family has pursued medicine, and he wanted to be a lifeguard to see the United States while still doing a job he loves. Last summer, Kriz pulled six or seven kids out of the water, and he’s already performed a rescue this year.
“Rescuing people is really close to me,” he said.
The lifeguards also get a chance to experience American culture by living in the communities they serve. Both Polaskova and Kriz were pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and generosity of Americans.
“It was a shock when people would come up to me, say ‘Hi, how are you?’” Kriz said. “It is not typical in my country, to be so polite.”
Last year, a family he got to know let him borrow their car, which helped him to do some grocery shopping and sight-seeing.
Polaskova said she appreciated when residents who use the pool she works at bring her food.
“Some people come with food [for me], and I ask, ‘Why?’ They say, ‘You are lifeguard, you are saving our lives.’ It makes me really happy when people offer,” she says with a laugh. “Especially pizza.”
While the lifeguards both agreed that they enjoy their work, they said the job comes with its share of challenges, too.
“It looks easy, like you are just sitting there, but you always have to be watching, and it gets hot by August. Sometimes you are sitting for hours in over 100 degrees,” Kriz said.
He also said he always has to watch for parents who are distracted and don’t watch their kids in the water. Especially on crowded days, this can be dangerous because a lifeguard can’t watch everywhere at once.
“We are lifeguards, not baby-sitters,” he said.
During Polaskova’s first year in the program, her challenges were more personal. Even with Skype, she said, it’s easy to miss family, and she had to face the challenge of living on her own.
“I’ve learned responsibility, life without family, without my mom cooking, how to live by myself,” she said.
While she has enjoyed her time in the United States, her dream is to move to a large house in the Czech countryside where she can adopt abused and neglected animals. And she hopes to keep up with the friends she’s made here on Facebook.
“There is a lot of interest in our lifeguards in the community because you don’t always meet someone from Kurdistan or Muldova or the Czech Republic,” Barile said.
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