Lifeguarding is a career choice for Dana Nelsen



When I went to meet permanent lifeguard Dana Nelsen at La Jolla Shores for the last interview of our Know Your Lifeguards series, one of her colleagues told me, “Oh, are you interviewing the best lifeguard in all of San Diego?” It’s hard to verify if the statement is true, but she very well could be.

This 27-year-old, born and raised in University City, said she learned how to swim in The Cove. She swam the La Jolla Rough Water Swim for the first time at age 5, and did it for 20 consecutive years until 2014. “I won when I was 8, that was a lot of fun,” she said.

At age 10, Nelsen started her lifeguard career with the Junior Lifeguards, at age 16, she became an intern and at age 18 interviewed for a seasonal position, securing the job on her first attempt. “This is my third year as a permanent,” she explained. “I did seven summers as a seasonal, I interviewed twice and after my second interview, I was promoted.”

2016 was her first year assigned to La Jolla, and she will be going back to the central coast district (Pacific Beach to Mission Beach) in the next rotation. Nelsen is a versatile lifeguard who wants to be strong in all areas of the service. “I think I’m going to continue bouncing around just so I can get a good grasp on all the districts and gain experience,” she said.

She defines lifeguarding as “the best job in the world,” and her hope for the future is to stay in the service and share her knowledge and experience with up-and-coming guards.

What are the foundations for a good lifeguard?

“A good lifeguard is able to swim well and run, and be cognizant of their surroundings. They have situational awareness, take preventative actions and spread ocean knowledge and beach safety to the public because on the beaches of San Diego we get a lot of tourism, which is great, but a lot of people come not knowing anything about the ocean. We try to educate people so they don’t get into trouble. If they do get into trouble, maybe they’ll be able to help themselves out a little bit.”

You learned how to swim at The Cove. How do you see it now, after 20 years?

“I worked there this winter and it made me sad because it’s not how it used to be. It’s still a beautiful place, but it’s not as relaxing as it used to be. More people go there now to see the sea lions, and that’s not what The Cove is about. It’s about relaxing at the beach, snorkeling, seeing the underwater park and the environment. Hopefully, it can change, but lifeguards are adapting to it, we have to.”

What do you like most about being a lifeguard?

“I really like how dynamic it is and not knowing what I’m going to get each day. I like the lifestyle job that it is, I work with some of my best friends. We have the best time and then everyone knows how to put their game face on when a critical situation happens. There’s not a day when I don’t want to come here, and I think that I speak for everyone on that. Everyone is really humble about it. We come out here and we do what we have to do, and we don’t ask for praise. It’s just what we love to do.”

Tell me about your background.

“I’ve always been around the water. In high school, I started playing water polo, and went to college on a water polo scholarship at UC Davis. Then I graduated. I worked during the summer (as a lifeguard) and was promoted (to a permanent position).”

Your partner is also a permanent lifeguard. What is it like to share that bond?

“It can be really good, but also really frustrating because we don’t always want to talk about work at home. I’ve talked to guys who have spouses that are not lifeguards, and they say it’s hard for them to talk to them about the job because it’s hard to understand what goes on if you aren’t immediately involved in it, especially with the jargon that we use. It doesn’t really translate to some people if they don’t hear the radio transmissions all day.”

What’s it like to be a female lifeguard?

“We hit some roadblocks in some places just because we aren’t as respected as some of the guys. I think that’s kind of a cultural thing that needs to be changed in every work profession. But workwise, with all the guys I work with, they are very respectful. We work just as hard as they do, and we have done everything that they’ve done to get the same job ... but sometimes, with the public, we are not as respected, especially if we are going for a rescue. If it’s a guy, we don’t always get the best feedback, and we’re just here to do our job. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. It shouldn’t be about gender when it comes to a rescue situation.”

What are the challenges of lifeguarding at the Shores?

“Trying to keep your cool with the public. We do the best we can, we don’t ask for recognition. It’s hard when we are making rescues all day and we are really busy, and we get a lot of complaints about trivial things in the parking lot, or the bathroom lock that won’t work. There aren’t very many of us so sometimes we can’t get to everything. It’s really nice to get positive feedback from the public, on those days, especially, when you’re trying to do everything and someone tells you ‘good job, thanks for doing this.’ ”

What’s your favorite beach in La Jolla?

“WindanSea. It’s really peaceful when there’s not a lot of people there. It’s one of the most picturesque places in La Jolla. It’s a staple in La Jolla with The Shack being there and it has a lot of history.”

ON THE WEB: You can find La Jolla Light’s five-part lifeguard series online with profiles on lifeguards Daniel Orloff, David DuPont, Kelsie Gleason and Rodger Eales, in addition to Dana Nelsen. Ssearch for “Know Your Lifeguards” at or visit