Cynthia Aguilar: Ocean Paddler

She has among the most iconic jobs in America: saving lives on South Beach. But beyond the silicone and spray tans, being a lifeguard is actually a dirty, difficult, and dangerous job.

There was the time Cynthia Aguilar rode her Jet Ski out to a fishing accident two miles off Government Cut. She dived under the boat, grabbed an unconscious man who had hit his head, hauled him out of the water, and gave him mouth-to-mouth on a deck covered in fish guts and rusty hooks. As the man's family watched, Aguilar and a fellow lifeguard brought him back to life.

Then there was the evening when she joined a search-and-rescue near South Beach. Aguilar swam deep under the dark water until suddenly a pale face — foaming at the mouth — came floating up from below. That time, there was no happy ending.

"We're known for being Bay Watch. But as a lifeguard, I'm putting my life in danger and I have no protection. We've had plane crashes, and we're the first people there," the mellow 27-year-old says. "I'll look down at myself afterward and see I'm covered in oil and blood."

Aguilar's life has been a love-hate relationship with the ocean. Born to Nicaraguan immigrants and raised in Hialeah, where she still lives, she took to the pool as soon as the diaper came off. In 2004, Aguilar began putting her lifeguard skills to work in paddleboard races to raise money for local charities. Before she knew it, she was a paddling fanatic. Three years ago, she set a world record with a 60-mile solo trip from Bimini to Dania Beach. And when she started her own nonprofit, she named it after her personal philosophy: "Keep Paddlin."

That mantra would be tested, however, during an attempt this past September to paddle 130 miles from Cuba to Key West. For hours under the relentless sun, she fought the Caribbean currents and flying fish while watching for sharks. But by nightfall, she found herself surrounded by another deadly foe: Portuguese men-of-war. Each stroke brought tentacle stings that sent searing pain through her hands and arms. Finally, her chest began to tighten and her temperature dropped. She was going into shock. Her team swept in, ready to call off the trip. Yet Aguilar insisted, and after a short break, she was paddling once again.

But nature can be fickle. The ocean currents flipped, and seven hours later, she was back in the same spot. "It was the hardest decision of my life to get out of the water," she says. "I'm always preaching not to let anything stop you. And nature stopped me." Then something strange happened. Depressed and huddled under a blanket on the boat back to Miami, Aguilar looked up to see a pod of whales break the surface of the water.

"It was nature's friendly way of saying, 'It's going to be OK,'" says Aguilar, who plans to try again next June.

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