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'I was 17 when I saved a little girl from drowning. Thankfully, I've never had to do it again ever since'


Jim and Karen McCurry

Jim and Karen McCurry

Jim with the certificate awarded to him at Buckingham Palace for services to life-saving

Jim with the certificate awarded to him at Buckingham Palace for services to life-saving

The Queen

The Queen

Jim and Karen McCurry

Courageous, award-winning lifeguard trainer Jim McCurry tells Stephanie Bell about meeting the Queen, making his wife a 'life-saving widow' and refusing to let a childhood battle with polio hold him back.

Jim McCurry is one of those lucky people whose job is also his passion. And just last week, in recognition of his dedication to using his work skills in a voluntary capacity, he got to meet and mingle with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

It was some much-deserved recognition for a man who for more than 30 years has taught vital life-saving skills to people of all ages in Northern Ireland as a volunteer with the Royal Life Saving Society.

East Belfast man Jim was presented with a Certificate of Merit by HRH Prince Michael of Kent for his contribution to the valuable work of the charity, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

Jim, who is a long-standing member of the Northern Ireland branch of the society, attended a recent event at the Royal Over-Seas League, where 125 members of the society from all over the Commonwealth were presented with the award.

An unassuming community hero, Jim is one of the most active volunteers in the local branch in relation to lifesaving, lifeguarding and, in particular, drowning prevention and community life support.

What he has achieved is all the more remarkable given that he suffered from polio as a child and was directed towards life-saving and swimming in his teens to increase his strength, not knowing then that it was going to become a major passion and his chosen career.

Jim (58), a sports programme manager at the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex, is married to Karen (50) and lives in East Belfast.

The couple have made headlines twice in this paper - once for their unconventional wedding at Gretna Green in 1989, and then 25 years later when again they went for something different and renewed their vows in a special anniversary ceremony on board the SS Nomadic in 2014.

As a couple, Karen and Jim are inseparable, so much so that when Karen realised she had become what she laughingly refers to as "a life-saving widow", she decided to join the Royal Life Saving Society, too, and currently serves as secretary.

Karen is just as thrilled and perhaps even prouder than Jim of his recent award, and both were honoured by their surprise meeting with the Queen.

"It was a bit surreal as I had only ever seen the Queen before on TV," says Jim. "Buckingham Palace is absolutely gorgeous and the whole event was so slick and professional.

"The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were very friendly. We had the awards presentation with Prince Michael of Kent that morning, which was brilliant, then we were told we were invited to a reception at Buckingham Place that evening being hosted by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

"It was held in The Long Gallery, and we sort of formed a queue to say hello and have a photograph taken with the Queen, then we were ushered into a room for refreshments.

"I thought that was it, but the next thing the Queen's equerry came over to us and told us the Queen was going to talk to us. I was with a colleague from the Republic, and we were the only two from Ireland there. The next thing, we were having a chat with the Queen.

"When she realised where I was from, she mentioned the Open being hosted in Royal Portrush and told me that the last time she was in Northern Ireland she visited the Giant's Causeway, where it was absolutely freezing. She was so lovely and very friendly.

"It was a very special day and I'm really pleased to get the award."

The award Jim received is presented to people whose voluntary contribution and achievements have significantly impacted on their communities, as well as those who have represented the society in an exemplary way, in particular in the fields of sport, youth and drowning prevention.

He has ticked most of those boxes over the decades, working outside of his job to equip others in the community with life-saving skills.

Big-hearted Jim has been involved with the society since the 1970s, when he became a lifeguard at the Grove Baths in Belfast.

He is currently a national trainer assessor, and when he is not in work he usually spends his time volunteering for the society.

"I learned to swim when I was five years old, but in my early teens I joined the Polio Fellowship and they encouraged me to swim and take up life-saving," he explains. "I became a teacher and I've never looked back."

While he spends his spare time teaching other people in a whole range of life-saving techniques, from showing children how to perform CPR and showing new mums what to do if their babies choke to saving people from drowning, he is grateful not to have had to put the skills into practice too often during his career.

"As a lifeguard, you are trying to prevent anyone getting into trouble," he says. "I did have to perform CPR on a few occasions. I was about 17 and not long qualified when I saved a child from drowning.

"I wasn't even on duty that day and had gone to the pool to swim. I had just gotten into the water when I spotted a wee girl at the bottom of the pool and pulled her out.

"I gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and she came round immediately. She was probably only about six years old. Thankfully, I haven't had any others since then."

Jim and his wife made the front page of the Belfast Telegraph on December 14, 1989, when they tied the knot in Gretna Green in front of a small group of family and friends.

They wanted to do something different and as the laws at the time did not permit weddings in venues outside of a church or registry office, they decided to tie the knot at Gretna Green, which is a famous destination for those who elope to get married.

Then, two years ago, they pushed the boat out for a large family anniversary celebration on board the SS Nomadic, where they marked their silver wedding anniversary with 80 guests.

Now celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary this week, Karen says Jim's award and getting to meet the Queen has made this one very special.

"I knew Jim had been nominated, but I didn't know he was going to get the award and we weren't expecting to meet the Queen," she stresses.

"It was a wonderful trip and well-deserved for Jim. He is very modest about what he does, but it really is his passion in life. Wherever we go, we have to look at the pools in the area and the life-saving equipment. Not long after we married, I realised that I had become a life-saving widow, and I decided that I might as well get involved, too, and volunteer with the charity. If he is not life-saving as part of his job, he is training others to do it.

"Jim wears a leg brace because he has no muscle in his leg due to the polio and he walks with a limp.

"People are surprised that he can swim because of it, yet swimming is easier for him than walking. He used to do long-distance swimming, and the hardest part for him was walking out of the sea. He thoroughly deserved the award and I'm very proud of him."

The Royal Life Saving Society is a volunteer organisation and charity dedicated to the prevention of drowning.

It has independent and self-governing branches active in a total of 27 Commonwealth countries.

It works with affiliates, partners and volunteers like Jim to reduce drowning through public education and awareness, life-saving and lifeguard training, survival swimming and swimming instruction, risk management, life-saving sport, research into the causes and prevention of drowning, and advocacy for sound drowning prevention standards.

The Queen is the society's patron, and Prince Michael of Kent is its Commonwealth president.

Drowning is among the 10 leading causes of death in children and young people, with the under-fives at the highest risk, according to the World Health Organisation's 2014 Global Report on Drowning.

Around 373,000 people drown worldwide every year, with 90% of deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries, many of them in the Commonwealth.

Jim was presented with his award along with members from countries including Australia, Cameroon, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and St Lucia.

He was the only person from Northern Ireland to receive the award.

Belfast Telegraph