Paula Ekins 

Boise Parks and Rec's queen of the pools

It was a near-perfect summer day in Boise. Temperature: 87 degrees. Parents: smiling. Kids: laughing. The water: crystal clear. The backdrop at Ivywild Pool in southeast Boise was ideal for a conversation with Paula Ekins, aquatics coordinator for the Boise Parks and Recreation Department.

"I started working at Boise pools when I was 16," said Ekins, who is one of six children. "That's when I started as a lifeguard."

That was 1990. Since then, Ekins has hired hundreds of Boise teens—the first job for many of them—to protect and mentor tens of thousands of kids each summer. She is also in charge at the Fort Boise Community Center so, at the height of summer, it's a rare opportunity to get her to sit down. Boise Weekly recently scored a poolside chat with Ekins as scores of kids gleefully splashed in the water on what had to be one of the best days of summer 2015.

I'm presuming that you have fond memories of being around pools as you grew up.

I practically lived at the Fairmont Pool [near Fairmont Junior High]. When I was 16, I remember telling a friend that I was going to be George one day: That's George Scott. He was the head of pools back then. I ended up working for him for 22 years.

Were you around water through much of your childhood?

I think I was 5 when I joined a swim team. I specialized in individual medley races, plus the butterfly and breaststroke. I played a lot of soccer growing up, plus basketball and track. Back in the day, it wasn't uncommon to be a four-sport athlete. I ended up going to Whitworth [University] on a soccer scholarship.

How about your own kids? Are they athletic as well?

My son is an offensive lineman at Baker University in Kansas, plus he wrestles. This summer, he got an internship to do what I do on a naval base in Japan—he's getting a degree in sports facility and athletic management. My daughter is heading to Baker as well this fall. She throws the hammer, discus and shot put. She'll compete at a national level.

Can you trace your own career through many of Boise's pools?

In 1990, I started as a lifeguard. When I was 17, I became a swim teach coach. I would come back and work at the pools when I was home from college each summer. In the summer of 1995, I became the swim team coordinator. We have over 1,200 kids on our swim teams, and I would be at every swim meet, nearly every weeknight. In 1996, I worked at the then-brand new West Boise YMCA Aquatic Center. I went to full-time in 2003 and, in 2012, George Scott retired. That's when I took over as aquatics manager.

Your prediction came true: You finally did become George.

Additionally, I'm the facilities manager at the Fort Boise Community Center.

Speaking of which, that's an incredibly busy place.

We just started an older, active-adult program.

Older active adults?

Those are baby boomers who don't want to go to a senior center. These are seniors who like to go zip-lining. Plus they go on beer tours, winery tours, you name it. That program is really popular.

Back to the pool. Is being a lifeguard still the best job in town for a teenager?

The impact you can have on kids is really something, and being a lifeguard really jump-starts a career ladder. The one thing about lifeguarding is that you're almost always employable. Even when our kids go off to college, nearly every university has an aquatic center.

Is it difficult to get a job as a Boise lifeguard?

Not really. For example, this summer we had a lot of applications but a lot of openings. About every five or six years, we get a fair amount of turnover, but we have great retention overall.

How young can a lifeguard be?

You can take the test at 15 and be hired at 16.

And how old?

All of our managers are lifeguards, and our oldest is 51.

How many lifeguards do you have at the six city pools?

One hundred and twenty-five this summer at the six facilities.

Speaking of the facilities, there has been some conversation at City Hall about changes to some of Boise's older pools.

The pools at Lowell Elementary and South Junior [High] are showing their age. I understand that they're historical, but at some point, you can't keep throwing money into a Pinto.

That would be the Ford Pinto, the '70s era automobile.

Remember the Pinto? It may have been your first car, but come on. At a certain point, you need to stop throwing money into it. Lowell and South were built in the early 1950s.

But if you took those pools away...

We wouldn't take a pool away without replacing it. It may not be exactly where the existing pool is, but it will definitely be in that neighborhood.

What's the most difficult part of managing a pool?

The possibility of drowning. We've never had any drowning at a Boise public pool. Have we had near-misses? Yes. Were they 100 percent attributable to parents not watching their kids? Absolutely. Does that mean they had intended for anything to happen? Of course not. But do kids walk away? Heck, yeah. There has to be a heightened sense of awareness of danger around the water

But when I look out on this pool, I see fun. What do you see?

I'm always looking around and asking: What if? What if? What if? A pool isn't a playground. What if you thought of a body of water as a kidnapper? It's actually a bit more deadly, because it's silent. Idaho is constantly among the highest rates in the nation for drownings. It's due, in large part, to our irrigation canals. That said, I must say we do an amazing job at our pools across the Treasure Valley.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but another summer is almost gone.

The pool at South closes Aug. 15, the pools at Fairmount and Lowell close on the 16th, Ivywild and the Natatorium close on the 23rd, and we'll keep the Borah Pool open until Labor Day, Sept. 7.

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