On a Beach in Brooklyn, a Chair Sits Empty By JAKE MOONEY
EVEN in the best of conditions, swimming long distances in unfamiliar water is an exercise in mild disorientation. Add waves, strong currents and the chilly seas that persist into the spring, and the voices in your head that say you’re crazy grow even louder.
A partial antidote, Gilles Chalandon was saying the other day, is to have landmarks on the shore. Mr. Chalandon, a 52-year-old native Frenchman who once placed third in the annual 28.5-mile swim around Manhattan Island, was standing in the sand on Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, facing the ocean, when he pointed out a few such markers.
To the west, about a mile away, was the long pier at Coney Island. To the east was a big white building marking the end of Brighton Beach. A third landmark, somewhere in between, had emerged over the years, but it was nowhere to be seen on this overcast Saturday morning. It was the chair of Grimaldo Medrano, a veteran lifeguard who became one of the distance swimmers’ best friends on land.
The chair will return by Memorial Day, when the swim season officially begins. But Mr. Medrano will not; he died on March 31, of lymphoma, at the age of 34. The news came as a shock to some swimmers who knew him, because Mr. Medrano, a cheerful presence on the beach in warm months for that past decade and a half, had told few people he was sick.
Now, those who knew Mr. Medrano face their first long summer without him.
“I’m seeing parts of Coney die,” Patricia Sener, a swimmer and a friend of Mr. Medrano’s, said last week. “And now at the beach, that’s going to be irrevocably different. It already feels different.”
Ms. Sener met Mr. Medrano 16 years ago, when she was 29 and he was 18. As a teenager, he had moved from his native Panama to Brownsville, Brooklyn, then attended Thomas Jefferson High School, where he was on the swim team. The two later trained together, and eventually he got a job as a lifeguard at Brighton Beach.
By around 2002, Ms. Sener had helped found a nonprofit group called the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers, Cibbows for short, and Mr. Medrano proved an important ally. Lifeguards tend to frown on people swimming outside the designated areas, which is exactly what open water swimmers do. Mr. Medrano helped convince his fellow lifeguards that the Cibbows people could be trusted.
They would meet near his chair before and after swims, and sometimes after his shift, Mr. Medrano would join them for a beer at Ruby’s Bar, on the Coney Island boardwalk. In 2005, when the group organized a race from Coney to Brighton, the name seemed natural: Grimaldo’s Mile.
The race is an annual event now, and the name will remain as a memorial. But even then the tribute seemed appropriate. Mr. Medrano could appear languid on the beach, but was alert to swimmers in trouble.
“He had a remarkable gift,” said Sondra Vitols, another Cibbows co-founder, “for being able to relate to an emotionally handicapped Russian teenager, to an investment banker showing up from Manhattan, to a Puerto Rican woman just learning how to swim.”
On Saturday, a handful of Cibbows members — including Mr. Chalandon, who sells reproductions of antiques; Rachel Golub, a 32-year-old violinist; and Cristian Vergara, a 50-year-old accountant — were warming up in a van next to the beach, shivering after a long morning’s swim in 52-degree water.
Jonathan Farber, a 42-year-old landscape architect, was explaining how Mr. Medrano made people feel at ease.
Somebody in the back of the van said, “There’s a lot of kooks on this beach, and they all crowded around Grimaldo’s chair.”
Grimaldo Medrano was, of course, more than a lifeguard — he was a son, a brother and a godfather. Speaking by phone last week, his cousin Jonelle Pinckney said he had worked full time as a social worker, first in public schools and then at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
Through it all, Ms. Pinckney said, whenever he had a free day, he would slip into his orange uniform and head to the beach.
“That was his peace,” she said. “He’ll come home and you’ll just see the orange. That’s all that you’ll see coming towards you, and you know Grimaldo’s coming home.”
She had that in mind the morning she dressed for his funeral.
“I was like, ‘I’m not wearing black,’ ” Ms. Pinckney said. Instead, she said: “I wore orange. I wore the lifeguard color orange to the funeral.”