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Floating to the top: Mills’ head lifeguard

Head lifeguard Cherise Bentosino scans the pool at Trefethan Aquatic Center. The Mills graduate has worked there five years. (Courtesy of Cherise Bentosino)

Even though Cherise Bentosino was born and raised in Hawaii, she wouldn’t put her face in the water while swimming for her lifeguard training class five years ago at Mills College. Now she’s the head lifeguard.

“I didn’t really go to the pool growing up,” Bentosino said. “I thought it was weird.”

Bentosino has now been a lifeguard for nearly five years and a head lifeguard for one of those years. The 23-year-old graduated from Mills 2009, but she’s not planning on going back to her hometown of Honolulu anytime soon. Bentosino works about 40 hours per week at Mills’ Trefethan Aquatic Center, supervising the 20 other lifeguards and watching the pool herself when she can. In addition, she teaches lifeguard training classes and swim lessons.

And yes, she can swim properly now.

“I never thought lifeguarding would progress to becoming my bread and butter after college,” Bentosino said.

And Bentosino is one tough, Honda Rebel motorcycle-riding lifeguard.

Bentosino sits atop her three-foot guard chair, short dark hair, chestnut skin, 5’3″ and no more than 115 pounds in a soaking wetsuit. Although some swimmers may be twice Bentosino’s size, her rescuing skills are never questioned; she regularly scoops a 150 pound mannequin named Clarence off the bottom of the pool just to make sure no one drowns on her watch.

Bentosino can likely attribute some of  her skills to her upbringing.

Bentosino grew up on Ewa Beach in Honolulu, jumping into the warm ocean at a young age. She would casually play in the surf, occasionally taking swim lessons at her local YMCA. Still, her stroke wasn’t the most refined.

“I don’t really recall ever learning to swim,” Bentosino said. “It was just something you grew up learning to do.”

Bentosino had visited the mainland before but had never been to Oakland when Mills offered her a hefty scholarship.

“I came up here because I had island fever,” Bentosino said. “The first time I’d ever seen the campus was when I moved into my dorm.”

Bentosino adjusted to the campus relatively quickly except for one issue: the weather.

“(My first semester) was probably the coldest, rainiest winter that California had in a long time,” Bentosino said. “It didn’t stop raining for two months.”

Once spring came around, though, Bentosino enrolled in the lifeguard training class on campus taught by Carol Berensdsen.

Although Bentosino felt comfortable near a body of water, she wasn’t exactly the chatty type.

“The first time I met her, she was sitting in the chair and she was just really quiet,” said Kurt Loeffler, former head lifeguard of the Mills pool.

Loeffler said his second impression of Bentosino was when he saw her labeling her ice cream container she planned to store in the pool’s freezer.

What did Bentosino write?

“Do not steal, do not touch, karma is a wench,” Bentosino said.

But when Bentosino wasn’t writing about karma or eating ice cream, she was slowly learning about how to guard the pool.

“From the day she walked in her first lifeguarding class, she didn’t just jump in but made decisions based on information,” Berendsen said. “She was so intent on getting it right.”

Bentosino continued guarding, taking a water safety instructor class spring of her sophomore year so she could teach swimming lessons. It was baptism by fire, except in a pool. Although already a strong swimmer, she strengthened her swimming technique by learning how to teach various strokes.

Loeffler said he began to see Bentosino evolve as she took on more responsibilities at the pool.

“When I was still the head guard I remember the second year watching her teaching and saying to Carol how much she had blossomed,” Loeffler said.

So when Loeffler was ready to step down from his lifeguard chair and chose and successor, he had Bentosino in mind.

“It was easy; I had worked with Cherise since I came in (to work at Mills),” Loeffler said. “She was a good lifeguard, expressed herself well and had a good sense of humor.”

Bentosino doesn’t plan to stick around the Mills poolside forever, though.

Next on her list? Applying to be a United State Coast Guard, a six year commitment that may involve rescue swimming out in the open water.

“With the coastguard I could combine my experience with swimming, aquatics and my knowledge of health,” Bentosino said. “I would be serving not just Mills or Oakland, but the nation.”