Leroy Colombo: The Deaf Lifeguard Who Saved a Thousand Lives


Imagine a child of only seven years of age who, suddenly and because of meningitis, becomes totally deaf and paralyzed from the waist down. He goes swimming to strengthen his legs and within a year he is able to walk. His father died of a heart attack when he was eight years old. And who, in spite of everything, becomes a lifeguard and saves almost a thousand lives over 40 years. He is Leroy Colombo.

Deaf lifeguard Leroy Colombo swimming
One of the few remaining photographs of deaf lifeguard Leroy Colombo (image: Leroy Colombo / Rosenberg Library Museum)

A Model of Overcoming

Leroy was born in 1905 in Galveston, a town with a population of just 25,000 inhabitants in the southeast of Texas (United States), but famous for its long beaches and the hundreds of tourists who come to these beaches to spend the summer and especially to surf. With meningitis he lost his hearing and the mobility of his legs, although his brothers encouraged him to swim and within a year he was able to walk. Colombo also learned to read lips and American Sign Language at the Texas School for the Deaf.

Leroy loved the water and at only twelve years old saved his first life (a boy) when Leroy returned from his residential school to Galveston to visit his family. At just 18, he became an official lifeguard, although he had saved a few more lives before that.

Commemorative plaques for deaf lifeguard Leroy Colombo and trophy for first place in long-distance swimming competition
From left to right: memorial plaque dedicated to Leroy Colombo upon his death located on the beaches of Galveston, trophy won by Colombo for his first place finish in a 24-kilometer Gulf of Mexico long-distance swimming championship (photo: Rosenberg Library Museum), and another historical memorial plaque honoring Colombo in Texas

Incredible Lifeguard And Excellent Swimmer

Over the course of 40 years, Leroy saved 907 people from drowning, although it is believed he could have easily reached more than 1,000 if you count those he saved in addition to official lifeguarding. In any case, Leroy Colombo entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 1976 as the lifeguard who saved the most lives. It was said that Leroy Colombo had a "sixth sense" for detecting when a person was drowning.

He was also an excellent swimmer, participated in several competitions and won some very valuable trophies. Thus, at the age of 22, he won a 22-kilometer race in the Gulf of Mexico after swimming for 11.5 hours, while all the other competitors abandoned the race due to muscle cramps or jellyfish stings. Even during a 16-kilometer swim along the Mississippi River, he dislocated his arm after a 12-kilometer swim, so he continued swimming with one arm for the remaining 4 kilometers.

Deaf lifeguard Leroy Colombo in one of his latest photographs signing
One of the last photographs of Leroy Colombo, signing in American Sign Language (photo: uncredited)

Colombo retired from official lifeguarding at the age of 62 after detecting a heart condition, although he continued swimming until his death in 1974, when the city of Galveston dedicated a memorial plaque in his honor on the beach where he saved lives year after year and even named a street in the city after him. Leroy Colombo, the lifeguard whose worth was initially questioned because he was deaf, became a legend in the city after saving a thousand lives. He is remembered as a tireless, courageous, generous and charismatic person.


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