orn in 1905 in Galveston Texas, Leroy Colombo was the son of Italian immigrants. At 7 years old he got sick with meningitis, which caused him to lose his hearing and also made him paralysed from the waist down. His two brothers encouraged him to take up swimming as a way to strengthen his legs, and within a year Leroy was walking again. More importantly, he discovered how much he loved being in the water. When Leroy’s parents sent him to the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, Texas, he hardly ever left the pool. In his six years at school, Leroy broke several records for speed and distance. While visiting his parents, he also made his first rescue on Galveston Beach. He was only twelve years old.
After six years at the Texas School for the Deaf, Leroy went back to his parent’s house. He started surfing on the local beaches, becoming one of the first people to surf in Galveston. In 1923, Leroy joined the prestigious Toboggan Club, passing their entry test of swimming three straight hours without outside support or floating. The same year he also became an official lifeguard, although he had been saving lives unofficially for some time. When Leroy would notice a swimmer out too far, he would blow the whistle like crazy and pound his chest to let the swimmer know to come in. His brothers owned a raft, seat, and umbrella rental business, and Leroy would also sometimes work a day or two for them, if they needed the help or were going on vacation.
Leroy was an amazing swimmer and the record books are full of stories about how great he was. In 1927, he completed a 15 mile swim of the Gulf of Mexico in 11 hours. Most of the other participants never even finished the race, dropping out either due to muscle cramps or jellyfish stings. During a 10 mile race along the Mississippi river, he dislocated his arm at mile 8 and completed the race with one hand. He didn’t win, but neither did the Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan fame, who was also competing. He rescued two crew men from the water after a tugboat burst into flame, swimming underneath burning oil to save their lives. Most importantly, Leroy saved over 900 lives in his career as a lifeguard, a number proudly enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Leroy wasn’t just great in the water. He was well-known along the beach as a friendly guy with a great sense of humor. He could read lips well and spoke clearly. He would frequently roam the beaches alone, and he was quick to anger whenever anyone left a mess in the public facilities. After he retired at the age of 62, he still went swimming every day.
After Leroy’s death in 1974, the citizens of Galveston erected a plaque along the sea wall in his honor. The annual 5K run in Galveston is named after him, and there are numerous pictures of him tacked in lifeguard stations all along the beach. Leroy is also frequently used as an example in anti-discrimination lawsuits when deaf people have been denied the right to become lifeguards due to their inability to hear people calling for help. Though his accomplishments are many, Leroy’s greatest legacy is probably the 907 lives he saved from the blue waters of the Gulf.