It was a calm gray September day in Rehoboth Beach. Most of the lifeguards were back to their “real” lives, leaving much of the beach “swim at your own risk.”
Then the word came in—a man on an unguarded section of beach had gone in the water and not come out. Kent Buckson, captain of the beach patrol, called guards down from chairs to set up a search line in the ocean. Calmly, but urgently, Buckson organized 20 guards to find what turned out to be a body. He pulled the guy out, performed CPR until the ambulance arrived and then faced the man’s friend who walked up later not knowing what had just happened.
Strohm Edwards, a lifeguard at the time, remembers three things about that day: that he’d never been in a situation like that before, that they’d have never found that body if Buckson hadn’t organized so quickly, and that he was glad Buckson was in charge.
“In the water, I wouldn’t want anyone else next to me,” Edwards says.
For Buckson, it is a vivid memory of how harsh the ocean can be. In his 24-year career with the beach patrol, the hundreds of lives he’s saved often blur together, but he can tell you every detail of the handful of lives lost. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Kent Buckson is here to win. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, working to be the best is as much a part of his makeup as having strawberry-blonde hair, which he shaves off twice a week, and hazel eyes.
He says he’d love to just show up one day to be part of a friendly competition, but he can’t. When he gets into something, it’s to win, blow away the competition, show he’s got what it takes to even best himself. He expects a lot of himself and the same of all those around him.
It’s drive and a natural leadership ability that pushed him to be captain of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol for the past 12 years. It kept him there even against a two-year coup attempt that began in 2007. Back then it started with stickers around town that said, “Ban Captain Buckson” and built to a small group of lifeguards on strike on the boardwalk in 2008 demanding Buckson be fired. They said he favored some guards over others and put beach patrons at risk because he had too many guards training for competitions instead of sitting on chairs watching the beaches. It ended when Buckson was rehired, and the rebel leaders were not.
It’s his drive and innovation that propelled the RBP into national recognition in competition, fitness and professionalism. Rehoboth guards on vacation as far away as Hawaii have been stopped by guards there to talk about the Rehoboth patrol.
It’s his drive that led him to be one of the top triathletes in America. His ranking of All American Honors means he is in the top 5 percent of triathletes in the country for 2011.
And, it’s probably that drive that’s kept him single for the past 45 years. He’s filled his free time with hours of training rather than relationships.
In fact, the one-word description everyone—friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances—use to describe him is: intense.
Buckson is a special education teacher at Dover High School, but his passion is being a lifeguard and an athlete.
“It’s part of my identity,” he says. “I wonder who I’d be or where I’d go if I gave it up.”
Yet, it’s not how he started out. He always assumed he’d pursue a career in football and politics. He even chose a college based on how many football players came out of the program and majored in political science. It was his roommate, a native of Lewes, who talked him into trying out for the patrol as a summer job. It was the pivotal moment of his life.
One summer with the RBP and Buckson changed his life to work around summers at the beach. He even considered moving to a place where lifeguarding is a year-round job, but that would mean moving across the country and he wouldn’t want to be that far from his nieces and nephews.
Still, he’s managed to make his job year-round. He spends the winter upgrading and ordering equipment, working on budgets and making sure all supplies are in order and ready for opening day. In the spring he schedules and oversees the rigorous try-out and interview process he designed for all recruits.
It all has to be perfect, he says.
He gets it naturally. He’s from a family of over achievers. His father is David Buckson, a former Delaware judge, attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor. His mother, Patricia Buckson, is the first woman to open a women-only gym in 1970s Delaware. It was named the Fun Factory. And his brother, Eric, is a rising star in Republican politics.
“It always mattered who won,” says Eric Buckson, Kent’s older brother. The Buckson boys were always trying to outdo each other during their childhood. Riding horses, lifting weights, playing touch football, it was all about trying to beat the other one. It helped shape how Kent handles everything in his life now. He’s always looking for how he can win.
Buckson is a leader who does whatever works to make the patrol the best, say senior guards. They say they’ve seen and felt all of his methods, from the quiet, “I’m very disappointed in you,” to the in-your-face-rip-your-head-off screamer. He can be your greatest cheerleader or your biggest nightmare.
Being driven is not the first impression Buckson makes. Sitting in his ever-present workout clothes with feet up on a desk in Rehoboth’s City Hall, he seems more shy, boyishly charming, polite, certainly respectful. His speech is quiet, almost halting, and getting him to talk about his accomplishments is a painstaking task. His mother says she finds out about half the things he does by reading the paper.
Yet, his lifestyle is one of intensity. His diet is a stark repetition of protein and carbohydrates. He misses cheeseburgers, but fried food and red meat is strictly forbidden. Occasionally he’ll treat himself to a piece of dark chocolate, but more likely than not, he’ll brush his teeth rather than give in to a craving. He works out two to three hours a day, swimming, running, biking and weight lifting and has been able to squat as much as 650 pounds.
“I do that because I want to be at the top,” he says. He wants to stay in front of his guards figuratively and physically. It’s a life that requires discipline. “To be where I want to be in a triathlon, I had to be a little selfish.”
The walls of his two-bedroom condo would be blank if not for the pictures of lifeguard competitions, framed medals and a single painting of waves. His coffee table is stacked with rows of at least 30 triathlon magazines. The dining table has a place carved out for eating, with the rest piled high with paperwork for charities he supports and a marathon he created last year in Dover, called the Monster Marathon.
Then there’s his triathlon room—most people would call it a second bedroom.
Here he houses his bikes, wetsuits, weight vests and a collection of running and biking shoes that would make Foot Locker jealous. But not all of the shoe boxes stacked waist-high against the wall hold shoes. Several boxes are stuffed with medals, trophies, plaques and certificates from past races.
Some people call him a prima donna of the race world, but his closest teammates say he just expects everyone to be as serious as he is. When he wins a race he’s a light, fun, joking person. When he loses, well, people stay away from him.
“He can be difficult,” says Laurie Starrett, a friend since high school and a member of the same triathlon team as Buckson. He would do anything for her, she says, so she just accepts who he is. Even with his best friends, though, Buckson is very guarded, never giving away too much about himself or his feelings. It’s a shield he admits to having—one that protects him in his very public life with the beach patrol. When working with young impulsive guards and thousands of tourists who are more apt to complain than compliment, one has to be guarded or be taken advantage of, says Buckson.
He holds people accountable and some don’t like it, he says. Those who stick around for more than one summer tend to think of the RBP as a family. This year a record number of recruits tried out for the squad. Most say it is because of a friend already on the patrol who is always talking about how “awesome” it is.
As for Buckson, he’s at a point of self-reflection. He’s met every physical hurdle he set over the years and finds himself a bit goal-less for the first time. It’s new territory for him. A few injuries, a string of second-place finishes, and 45 candles on his birthday cake this year have Buckson contemplating his mortality.
He wonders aloud if maybe it’s time to rethink some of the choices he made, especially when it comes to his personal life. Is he too old to consider a wife and family? Can he really change? Does he really want to?
Whatever direction his life takes or, more specifically, he decides to take, it will probably be at full speed. It’s the only speed he has.