Interview: Jillian Weinstein

By Lucie Lagodich ~ Jillian Weinstein is a longtime summer resident of Fire Island who began lifeguarding in 2007. This year, she was named the first female chief lifeguard in the 100-year history of Ocean Beach.

The Fire Island News (FIN): What made you want to pursue this position of chief lifeguard and take on this role?

Jillian Weinstein (JW): If someone were to ask me at any point of the day or the year, no matter where I am, if they were to ask me where I’d rather be, I could be in Bali on a hammock enjoying the sun and the surf, I would say that I’d rather be here in this lifeguard shack with these people. I just love it so much and I didn’t want to see it go into someone else’s hands who maybe doesn’t feel that same connection that I feel to this place.

FIN: You are the first female head lifeguard in the 100-year history of the Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach, what does this mean to you?

JW: I had a really hard time accepting it at first, because I feel like there are so many other strong female lifeguards before me who really paved the way for me to do this, and they just don’t have the careers that allow them to stay here. I feel like I owe so much of this to those people … these strong women who were here before me who taught me how to be an even stronger lifeguard and woman, they deserve the credit as much as I do. It’s a strange thing to me that it’s 2021 and for it to be a thing that I’m the first female chief lifeguard. But as the summer goes on it’s starting to sink in more and more and I’m starting to realize that this is a big deal, and this is really cool, and I hope there are little girls on this beach that see that and know that they too can do whatever they want, and that they never lose that … adults also.

FIN: You mentioned that it took a while for it to sink in that you are the first female chief lifeguard, can you tell me a bit more about why it did surprise you?

JW: I think whenever I accomplish something pretty major it’s like I always have this now what, what’s next moment in my head, or what did I do to deserve this? The chief before me, Nick Stertz, he did so much for the beach. And I’m getting a lot of attention this summer… The only difference is that I’m a female, and the chiefs before me were male. But I’m starting to remind myself that I am making positive changes here, and I’m seeing a lot of the guards happier and telling me they’re having a better summer than they’ve had before and they’re feeling more confident on the beach. I’ve really stepped up the training with a lot of them and I think a big difference is that I am very present here and I’m trying so hard to lead by example.

FIN: As many women have experienced, you are getting so much attention this summer because of your gender rather than for what you’ve accomplished. As a result, do you think that this level of attention is a positive or negative thing?

JW: I think it’s definitely a positive thing because I think it’s drawn a lot of attention to the lifeguards. I think more people maybe who wouldn’t be paying attention to the lifeguards and how hard they’re actually working and what they actually do for Ocean Beach would go unnoticed. Now people are noticing it and I’m so happy for that because I think every single lifeguard here really deserves so much credit for what they do every day. In regard to training and being alert, those eight and a half hours every day in the sun, cleaning the beach twice a day, educating beach patrons, it’s just so much and for them to be getting this credit along with myself, that’s a really positive thing for the beach as a whole. I do think being the first female chief deserves some attention, but I just hope it doesn’t overshadow what I’m trying to do here for the beach as a whole. I don’t want people to only focus on the fact that I am a female but focus on the fact that I’m doing a good job here.

FIN: Do you think you being the first female head lifeguard represents any progress on Fire Island or the lifeguarding community towards equality?

JW: I think so. You always hear Fire Island and you think it’s so progressive and everyone’s super open-minded and that really hasn’t been my experience. I don’t want anything to be negative, I just think it’s like we’re just a small sector of society so societal norms carry over to Fire Island. So I think any progression like this is a huge deal. I do think it’s a step forward for Fire Island, for Ocean Beach. Maybe the next step is having another female mayor, who knows? I used to be a volunteer firefighter for Ocean Beach. Something like that, it is very male-centered, and I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable. But I’ve seen also throughout the years more and more women are joining the fire department. Things like that, maybe this will encourage even more women to join the lifeguarding crew. This year we have more women than we’ve ever had and that’s an incredible thing to see. I hope that continues for us, for the fire department, maybe for the board of trustees, every workplace here, every agency here.

FIN: Have you ever noticed any differences in how male versus female lifeguards are treated?

JW: I’ve noticed small differences here and there. In the beginning of the summer, I changed a few things. I think that everyone should be questioned, if you’re not questioning someone I think there’s a problem there. So I’m comfortable with people questioning me when I am changing something, or I have an idea, because that might lead to an even better idea. But I think the way I was being questioned might have been different. If I was a big male telling someone to do something, I think instead of someone saying ‘no, we shouldn’t do that,’ it would have been ‘hey maybe let’s think of doing it this way or what if we do this.’ I think there’s a difference sometimes and how people approach you and how people think they can speak to you.

FIN: Over the last 14 years have you noticed any shifts in the ratio of female lifeguards to male lifeguards?

JW: It fluctuates quite a bit. We’ve had one female lifeguard, Tricia Dowd, who’s been a lifeguard for 23 or 24 years. She’s honestly so incredible. She’s worked up here pregnant. I remember my first year she was pregnant with her first son, and I just remember looking at her and thinking, I could do that one day. I could do it all, I could be a mom, I could have a family and also do this. I think she was really the first person to show me that because in my mind it was always a career or family. And she does it all; she’s a teacher, she’s a mom of three and she lifeguards. I think she’s really shown a lot of the female guards that as well. So we’ve had female guards hired that are staying longer because they’re realizing I could be a teacher, I could be a lifeguard and I could be a mom. I don’t have to sacrifice anything.

FIN: Do you hope to share that message that as a woman you can do it all with people who are interested in becoming lifeguards or those who are already a part of the community?

JW: Yes, absolutely. I talk to the female lifeguards almost every week about it. You could do it all. You’re strong, you’re just as strong as the men here. You’re just as smart as them. People on the beach may look at you differently, and say, ‘Oh, if someone’s going to rescue me I want it to be one of those big guys over there with all the muscles.’ But at the end of the day, it’s how you swim, how you respond, how quick you are and how you’re using your brain in an emergency situation, and that doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female, it’s just your training and your knowledge and your experience and how well you know the ocean. I try to get that message across to everyone on staff, not just the females.

FIN: Do you have any favorite lifeguarding moments that make you love the community and your work in the Island? In other words, what makes Fire Island special to you?

JW: Honestly, every day here is the best day ever. I get emotional thinking about it. I’m so lucky to be here every day and to be working with the people that I get to work with. It’s just the like-mindedness of us, of all the lifeguards here. We’re a family here and we share a like-mindedness about the ocean and each other. There’s nobody here that doesn’t care for one another and I think that’s part of lifeguarding. The people change every year, but that mindset is always the same, that we’re a family and we care for each other and we put our lives in each other’s hands, every single day.