Like many of her teammates, Taylor Whang ’25 grew confident in the water as a young child. Since the age of 7, Whang has been in the habit of devoting countless hours to strenuous swimming lessons and training. All of this dedicated practice prepared her to save a 6-foot-tall man from drowning while on duty as a lifeguard in 2019.
Under a unique agreement known as the Columbia-Barnard Athletic Consortium, Whang competes alongside Columbia undergraduates in NCAA Division 1 Athletics and the Ivy League Athletic Conference — making Barnard the only women’s college to offer this opportunity.
After swimming for nine years, Whang earned her lifeguard certification and began working a summer job at the Park Ridge Municipal Pool in New Jersey. While at the pool, Whang noticed that a diver was taking a long time to surface. With her instinct as a fast-paced swimmer, Whang immediately jumped into the water with a lifeguard buoy and pulled the man to safety. While the survivor was able to cough up the water without any aid, Whang learned later that he did not know how to swim — and that his life had been literally in her hands.
“At that moment it was almost like being in a race because I went [on] autopilot and did what I knew I had to do,” said Whang, who had already spent years swimming competitively. “Lifeguarding is different from training — it requires you to build on it to think about the best approach to save a person’s life, all while reacting immediately.”
Lifeguarding is only one of the ways in which Whang has a big impact. Since the 2019 incident, Whang has reflected more on water safety protocols and has been motivated to teach swimming to children at the community pool during the summer in her hometown of Park Ridge.
“I try to create a fun experience for the kids, and it’s not only for their enjoyment but also for their safety,” said Whang. “As the swimming lessons progress, I definitely see that the children get more comfortable [in the water].”
Whang’s motivation comes in part from her mother, who learned to swim only after becoming an adult and made sure that her daughter was proficient in the water from a young age. “When you are an adult, overcoming fear in the water becomes more and more difficult. My mother’s courage inspired me, and I want to spread consciousness in and on the water to kids in my town,” said Whang.
Whang’s attentiveness to others helps her build tight bonds with her team as members encourage each other to balance academics with athletics.
At the heart of the team’s wins, not just as athletes but also as students, are hours of hard work outside of the pool and inside the gym, campus library, and the College’s science labs. With their training and practice taking up to 20 hours a week, Whang and her teammates count on each other for support. “Each and every member of the team is special in their own way,” said Whang, who majors in psychology and is on the pre-med track. “They inspire me every day to get up and work hard.”
Whang is especially grateful for her coaches, who are role models to the team. “I am inspired by my coaches, who are accomplished swimmers themselves,” said Whang. “They are growing us to be powerful women [by] showing us what powerful women can do.”
For Whang, it’s essential to take enough time to develop the skills to excel at swimming, but when the time for action arrives — when a drowning stranger needs help or when the starting whistle is blown at a competition race — she doesn’t wait to test the waters. She dives right in.
—ZUYU SHEN ’24