Lifeguard Profile > Second time around is even better for Diamond Beach lifeguard

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Lifeguard Tom Popdan Lifeguard Tom Popdan

 Lifeguard Tom Popdan said he felt a strong sense of accomplishment when he swam around Five Mile Island as a 20-year-old back in 1980.

So imagine how he feels now after doing it again at 52.

Popdan, who guards the private beach at the Diamond Beach Club just south of Wildwood Crest, accomplished the feat earlier this month. He began his journey at the 15th Avenue beach in North Wildwood and swam around the entire island, through two inlets, the back bay and past the entire beachfront.

He even shaved significant time off his first effort, completing the journey in 7 hours, 59 minutes. It took him almost 10 hours to finish in 1980.

“It was one of those ‘If I knew then what I know now’ type of things,” Popdan said. “Looking back, I really didn’t know anything about the ocean at all back then when I did it the first time.”

Popdan is a longtime beach lifeguard in the area. Except for a couple of summers he missed due to other commitments, he worked in Wildwood Crest from 1977 through 1994, before doing a 10-year stint as a lifeguard in Stone Harbor. He has been serving in Diamond Beach each summer since 2004.

Now a resident of Hawaii, where he is a schoolteacher and swim instructor, Popdan is a graduate of Cardinal O’Hara High School just outside Philadelphia. He went on to swim at Villanova University.

Popdan moved to Hawaii after visiting there some years ago.

“I had been coaching in Florida, but the place I worked at sat on some very valuable land so they ended up pouring concrete into the pool and selling it,” he recalled. “So right after that I did a lot of traveling. I went to Australia, New Zealand and then I wound up in Maui. I saw a pool there that I really liked and I really felt at home there, so I decided to give it a go. It’s a great place to live. But obviously I love coming back here every year.”

Popdan arrives in Jersey as soon as the school year ends in early to mid-June and is able to stay until right around Labor Day weekend.

The Diamond Beach area consists of three separate private beaches. The Diamond Beach Club beach has only one lifeguard stand. It is manned by two lifeguards each day from among a pool that includes Popdan, Joe Meehan and brothers Kevin and Robert Young.

“It’s really a great place to work,” Popdan said. “We all have a lot of experience. We’ve been coming down here forever and we trust each other. We try our best to keep a really safe beach.”

Popdan was asked what motivated him to swim the approximately 18 miles around the Wildwoods again.

“The whole event was like a celebration of the knowledge we all learned,” said Popdan.

He got significant help during his swim. Lifeguards Terry McGovern of Wildwood Crest and Darrick Kobierowski of Stone Harbor rowed alongside him for the entire trip. He also credited Wildwood Crest’s Bick Murphy and Chris Gamble, and North Wildwood’s Bill Auty for their advice, and his brother, Mike, for training him.

“Terry and Darrick have both won the Around the Island Row, and they’re two of the best rowers in South Jersey right now,” Popdan said. “I really trusted their nautical and navigational expertise.

“It was a great sense of physical and mental accomplishment, not just for me but for all the guys who helped me, too.”

Swimming through inlets, bays and the ocean is much different than swimming laps in a pool.

“You have to hit the tides right and hit certain places at the right time,” Popdan said. “At one point Terry and Darrick made a decision that we had to buck the tide. We had to go as hard as possible to get through until the tide changed. They took me very close to the marsh, and it was a full-out gut check for a solid hour.”

Popdan received a sort of hero’s welcome when he finished back at the 15th Avenue beach.

“The support from the North Wildwood Beach Patrol was incredible,” he said. “They really rolled out the red carpet for me at the finish. They cleared the water to get us in. It was awesome to get that kind of support.”

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