Joan Imhof, co-chair of the annual Red Cross Swim-A-Cross was excited when she called to talk about lifeguard Andrea Petruzzi of Bayville. "After the race, Tom Keller, 72, was praising Andrea to me. He kept saying - if it wasn't for her he wouldn't have been able to make it. He said she guarded him during the whole swim."
This year, Ms. Imhof, president of the Long Island Volunteer Center, said she realized how important the lifeguards are to the Swim-A-Cross. The water was choppy, and standing on the bridge of the police boat, using their high powered binoculars, she tried to keep track of the swimmers. It was hard to see them because of the waves, she said.
Whenever they spot someone they think is in trouble, they send over a lifeguard to stay with them. "Next year, I'm going ask people to wear colorful bathing caps or we might even give them caps," she said.
"Andrea really loves the Swim-A-Cross," said Ms. Imhof. "She asked to be in it, at the beginning of the season."
Lifeguard Andrea Petruzzi has several reasons why the Red Cross Swim-A-Cross is special to her. Andrea is a Town of Oyster Bay lifeguard, stationed at the Centre Island Beach and for the second time she assisted swimmers in the annual fund-raising event. She was one of the lifeguards on surfboards who took part in the one mile swim from Centre Island to the beach in Bayville.
Andrea has a history with the Red Cross. She grew up in Bayville and her mother, Barbara Baker, taught in the Red Cross swimming program at West Harbor Beach for many years.
Add to that: "I know Joan Imhof, she is my sister's friend, so I grew up looking up to them. Joan is the co-chair and co-founder of the Swim-A-Cross.
"It's wonderful living in Bayville and its wonderful to do something for your community. So when I started working for the Town of Oyster Bay, I wanted to help.
"My mom had swum in the event before," she said, "So you can see how I have an emotional attachment to it."
"Three years ago was the first time I took part in the swim. I was in the back and came in with one of the last swimmers. He had suffered a heart attack or stroke. I don't remember which, but he had a really hard time. It was a feat for him. He had swum all the other years, but he missed a year because of his health.
"He was all excited that he could do it that year. It was a challenge for him," she said.
Last year Andrea didn't get to take part in the Swim-A-Cross. "This year, I told everyone, I want to be in the back, because it means so much to me. I don't want to be with the first ones in, but the last - because of my experience the other year.
"This year it was Tom Keller that I stayed with.
"I talked to him and he explained that this race was special for him because it was for his niece Colleen. The race meant a lot to him, and he wanted to finish it. He had had a stroke.
"So again it was a struggle for someone and our relationship was tight. I was looking out for him and he was looking for me to keep him on course. I told him I was going to Sacred Heart to get my master's degree in physical therapy. He said I was going to do well.
"For a complete stranger to say that meant a lot," said Andrea.
"He swam parallel to the board. I encouraged him saying - there are two more buoys to get through."
When they arrived at the beach someone snapped a picture of Andrea and Tom. Tom, a retired New York City fireman, lives in East Williston.
The Red Cross has a special place in Andrea's heart. "Mostly, it's an emotional thing for me. I was raised with the Red Cross as part of my background. It was a Red Cross swimming program I went through. I am a Red Cross certified lifeguard. I've seen all the disaster relief they have done in Bayville and I was very happy to give back to an organization that I'd grown up with: giving back what was given to me."
Andrea takes her job seriously. "As you can see the lifeguard is really important. People shouldn't take the risk of swimming by themselves. It really is essential to have a lifeguard there.
"The windy weather made the water choppy and it was more difficult to swim this year. We got very exhausted and thirsty out there," she said. "There were times he held onto the board and took a rest so we stopped for conversation here and there. Most important, he made it all the way and at his own pace," she said.
Andrea took part in the Triathlon on Sunday, Aug. 22. She enjoyed that too, but it's not the same as the Swim-A-Cross to her where people can race or just swim across at their own pace.
Working at the Triathlon is difficult in a different way. The course starts at Roosevelt boat launching area. The swimmers swim in a semicircle. They are sent out in different heats - groups of people. "We have to keep the swimmers going in the right direction and see that they don't get hurt. People get kicked. It is a race after all, and people are keen on getting ahead of others," she explained.
The event includes a swim, a run and a bike event.
But, closest to Andrea's heart will always be the Swim-A-Cross! Joan Imhof also loves the event. She is used to attending gala black-tie events. "It's fun to go to a fund raiser in shorts," she quipped.