Safeguarding swimmers is in the Kenny family gene pool.
Story by Michelle Wagner
When Nags Head Fire Capt. John Kenny walked out on the beach in 1989 with a whistle around his neck and a buoy strapped around his chest, he had no idea that what he was doing would become a way of life for him and his family.
He was simply helping out an ocean-rescue squad that was short on lifeguards. But his days of lifeguarding didn’t end that summer.
“I had to make quite a few rescues that year, and by the end I was hooked,” says the 58-year-old Kill Devil Hills resident and avid waterman. He kept going from the firehouse to the lifeguard stand every summer, and 27 years later he’s still at it.
Kenny and his wife, Kim, had one child, Zach, at the time. The family grew from one child to four, and with their toes in the sand, Zach, Kelly, Shawn and Ian all watched their dad go to work on the beach. “Growing up, all my family ever did on the weekends was go to the beach. We were there from 9 in the morning until 5 at night,” Shawn says
Their father’s example and the pull of the ocean were strong. Three of the four children eventually joined him in ocean-rescue work.
Zach, 28, is a full-time firefighter in Wilmington, N.C., and a part-time ocean-rescue lifeguard in Wrightsville Beach. He got his start in Nags Head, working alongside his father from 2009 to 2012. Kelly, 25, also started in 2009 as a lifeguard on the beaches of Kill Devil Hills and continued for five years.
Shawn, 22, worked with Kelly in Kill Devil Hills for three years before switching over to Nags Head Ocean Rescue, where he now works as supervisor. He is a student at UNC Wilmington and has been a professional skimboarder since 2012. “Being able to work at the ocean, well, there is no better job,” he says.
A surfer and swimmer, John Kenny is a fixture on Nags Head beaches, whether on duty or off. He is frequently seen running along the waterline, fins tucked under his arms, until he disappears into the water to swim for a stretch from Bonnett Street to Eighth Street.
Kenny has earned two lifesaving medals and made numerous rescues in the ocean and the sound, in warm water and frigid; he’s gone into the sound more than once in the winter to rescue distressed swimmers.
This summer he will be patrolling the beaches for Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue. “I really enjoy mentoring new guards, passing on my knowledge and challenging them,” he says. “It makes me feel really good. I plan on continuing for as long as I can.”
Through the years, the lifeguards in the family have trained together, assisted one another on rescues and leaned on one another after difficult situations arose on the beach. They have also competed in dozens of lifeguard competitions across the country, placing at the top in events such as beach flags, run/swim, run/paddle and run/row.
Being confident and able to help people in the water in places like the Outer Banks is one of his biggest assets, Kenny says, adding that he is proud that his children have also found the value in it. “I’m really proud we are out helping the community and the people who visit,” he says. “Living on the beach, it’s just natural for us to be helping people in the water.”
Shawn echoes his father’s sentiments. “Every single time you put on your uniform, in the back of your mind you know something could happen that day,” he says. “Being in public safety has taught me to be humble. It’s not really about how many rescues you have at the end of the season. Now I really look at it as how long I can stay dry. As you progress through your career as lifeguard, you learn to be more proactive than reactive.”
Working as an ocean rescue lifeguard has been profound, he says. “Once I passed the swim test that first summer and got put up on the stand, it changed my life forever.”