David Albornoz doesn’t want to talk about himself.
Throughout his decades of work in St. Paul as a lifeguard, instructor and coach — leading, innovating, recruiting and yes, saving lives — his goal has been to stay out of the news.
“We want to avoid that relevance, and you know what avoids that relevance — doing the boring work,” he said. “What’s exciting is when the lifeguard went in and saved the kid. No, I want the lifeguard not having to go in because they did such good work preventing that from happening and training so many people that all the kids that come to the pool know to swim, they wear life vests, so the lifeguard is sitting bored to death because everyone is safe in the water.”
Still, the “boring work” has earned Albornoz national recognition, as he was honored as the National Drowning Prevention Association’s first “Water Safety Champion” on Feb. 15 for his work preventing drownings in St. Paul, especially among children of color.
Drowning is the leading cause of death of children between ages 1 and 4 and the second-leading cause of death for children up to age 14.
Black youth ages 10 to 14 are 3.6 times more likely to drown than their white peers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 1999 to 2019. Younger Black children ages 5 to 9 are 2.6 times as likely to drown as their white peers, and overall, Black Americans are 1.5 times more likely to drown than white counterparts.
“There’s so many people in this country that don’t have access to learning to swim, whether it be that the programs are too costly, they don’t have access to a program, the materials are just too expensive to afford transportation going to programs,” said Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the NDPA. “To have someone like David in his local community try to champion this, make sure these kids that may otherwise not receive this lifelong learning experience where they’re learning how to swim are learning how to be safe around the water … long-term will help reduce the risk of drowning.”
‘Always connected to water’
Albornoz, 52, loved water from a young age as a kid growing up in Venezuela, surfing and swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. By the time he was 15, he spent so much time at the beach that he was asked to become an unpaid lifeguard.
With the show “Baywatch” as inspiration, Albornoz said the job was “all fun and games” at first. However, his perspective changed when he witnessed a drowning.
“I realized that what we did was actually very important, and from then on, I was always connected to water.”
Albornoz moved with his family to Minnesota in 2002 to attend law school at Hamline University and continued lifeguarding on the side.
“I remember some of my classmates saying, ‘Dude, you’re wasting your time — you’re a lifeguard,’ but look at me now,” said Albornoz. “I believe that I found my purpose.”
That purpose became his full-time job. Albornoz currently works as the aquatics facility supervisor for the city of St. Paul and a swim instructor and coach at local YMCAs. He coached the Central High School swim team for seven years and still coaches volleyball and soccer at the school.
“I’m a lifelong lifeguard,” said Albornoz. “The work in the community, on the ground — that’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t do well in office spaces or in board meetings or whatnot, but I do love working with the kids.”
‘He doesn’t give up on people’
And Albornoz has left a lasting impact on the kids through his commitment to keeping them safe.
With support from Abbey’s Hope Charitable Foundation, an organization committed to drowning prevention, Albornoz has spread water-safety education to students across St. Paul public schools. Building strong relationships with the youth he educates, mentors and supports has also helped him recruit lifeguards for the summer amid a decade-long national shortage, according to Abbey’s Hope program manager Alison Petri.
“Cities are spending all kinds of money getting consulting firms, having meetings, doing all these things and saying, ‘How do we hire lifeguards? Where are the lifeguards? What do we do?’” said Petri. “St. Paul doesn’t have a lifeguard shortage. Both because David works for them, but also because of the programs he started.”
One of the recruits, Jacob Banas, who is now a sophomore at Michigan State University, met Albornoz at a soccer camp in middle school and was coached by him through high school, where he was convinced to join the swim team and from there became a lifeguard.
“On the soccer team he goes, ‘Boys, you know, you’ll get brownie points if you join the swim team,’” Banas laughed. “After that, to everyone on the swim team, he goes, ‘Boys, if you become a lifeguard you get extra brownie points.’ He’s really good at pushing the envelope.”
Everlyn Balvoa Granda, a senior at Highland Park High School, had Albornoz as a swimming coach and was trained by him to become a Como Regional Park Pool lifeguard in 2021. She said when she began lifeguard training, she doubted whether she could swim as far and hold her breath for as long as was required for the certification, but Albornoz’s encouragement helped her persevere.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to get the certification,’” she said. “You know when everyone is so good and you feel like you’re left behind — he never let me feel left behind. … I remember the first week I started working as a lifeguard and him being a supervisor in the summer. I had my first save, and he saw it and was so proud of me because of all of our hard effort. He doesn’t give up on people.”
Balvoa Granda has continued her work as a lifeguard since, saying Albornoz has created a welcoming, “family” environment at the pool that keeps her coming back. Banas also plans on continuing his work as a lifeguard when he comes home from college for the summer.
“Every year during the training for all the lifeguards, he always has this thing where he goes, ‘This is gonna be the best summer of your life,’” said Banas. “We always kind of laugh and are like, ‘OK, we’re glad you’re being enthusiastic,’ But he hasn’t ever been wrong about it, which is kind of funny.”
The ‘ripple effect’
Petri said the impact of Albornoz’s work to bring more and more kids to lifeguarding goes beyond staffing the pool.
“Let’s say you get lifeguarding training and you lifeguard one summer,” she said. “Maybe it’s not going to be a lifelong career in aquatics; if it is, awesome, but probably someday most of these people are going to be parents. And having that lifeguard training, they’ll be safer with their children and water and also teach their children water safety. So we’re talking about creating generational change.”
Albornoz and Petri recently teamed up to provide swim lessons to students entering the military, who need to pass a swim qualification test, as a pilot program in St. Paul.
“Many of these kids, if they do join the military, are set up for great opportunities for their life going forward, but what if because no one taught them to swim when they were 5, they can’t do it,” Petri asked.
Petri said the JROTC swim program has been “super incredible,” and she hopes the program will be picked up by a larger organization and instituted nationally.
For younger kids, Albornoz started the Rec Check: Safe in the Water program through the city last year, which provides after-school care for St. Paul youth once a week, including water-safety presentations and opportunities to swim.
“We go to Hamline Elementary, we go to Como Park Elementary and say, ‘I’ve got free passes to go to the pool for free, but you’re going to have to give me 45 minutes of your attention,’” said Albornoz. “We go over little things such as ‘don’t just pack it, wear your life jacket’ and we say, ‘never go in a pool if you don’t know; if you don’t know, don’t go.’ Those are the things I want to believe have a ripple effect.”
Albornoz acknowledges that some of the kids he works with will ignore his mnemonics; however, he thinks developing meaningful connections with kids is necessary to save lives.
“I want people to replicate what I’m doing,” he said. “What I’m doing has no copyright. … What we’re doing here should be happening in every school in the state.”
About the Author
Olivia Stevens is a senior journalism major at the University of Minnesota. As a 2022 Pioneer Press intern, Olivia will be reporting for the politics desk. She is also an associate editor at The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s campus newspaper. Olivia’s interests include trying local restaurants, going on road trips and hiking.