Calculating risk — by land and by sea
Photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Julia Rothstein October 11, 2021
Actuarial sciences major is a leader on her beach patrol and her rowing team
Thanks to inaccurate pop-culture representations (looking at you, Baywatch), we typically associate beach lifeguards with bronzed skin, bleached hair and more brawn than brain. Serious mathematical aptitude? Not so much.
But Julia Rothstein, an Honors student at the University of Delaware, bucks the stereotype.
In the summer months, Rothstein serves as the youngest lieutenant on the Surf City Beach Patrol, a 34-member squad in Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Between training novice guards, pulling swimmers out of rip currents and keeping sunbathers calm when a Cessna 150 airplane crashes immediately offshore (yes, that really happened), she participates in lifeguard competitions with neighboring patrols — or, more accurately, she dominates lifeguard competitions. In July, a local newspaper suggested that Long Beach Island rename it’s women’s tournament after Rothstein, because her prowess in the double’s rowing event, which requires maneuvering a 350-pound wooden boat through ocean swells with only one partner, lends the Surf City squad a “bulletproof vest.” This ability may be woven into Rothstein’s DNA — she is one of 11 family members, including nine cousins and two older sisters, to join the patrol.
“It can be grueling,” said Rothstein, who has rowed up to four miles in a single competition. “The job definitely tires me out.”
During the academic year, when she trades sunscreen for statistics, the Blue Hen takes on a different kind of grueling. As a senior actuarial sciences major and dean’s list regular, she studies how to assess risk in finance, insurance and other industries, meaning she tackles one of the most demanding course loads on campus. Imagine classes in quantitative macroeconomic theory, applied database management and the particularly ominous sounding “survival analysis” which, to the uninitiated, reads like something out of a mathematics-themed Hunger Games.
On the surface, these two passions — lifeguarding and actuary-ing — appear completely disparate pursuits, but… are they, really? According to Rothstein, there is a great deal of calculating, risk assessment and general brainpower involved with her studies, naturally, but also with her work on the beach. Think of the latter as a different kind of survival analysis.
“I am always imagining scenarios,” said Rothstein, who has been lifeguarding for six years. “What if that boogie boarder gets blown out to sea? What if that sandbar collapses and five people are left struggling? What kind of rescue will I do? Will I need a paddleboard or a buoy? Or maybe two buoys? On the stand, you are constantly thinking.”
There are other parallels, too — whether you’re dealing in paddleboards or protractors, you cannot be afraid to ask questions.
“When it comes to taking an exam or doing a save, you need to be prepared,” Rothstein said. “In the moment, you don’t want to be wishing you’d asked a professor — or a more senior guard — how to approach a given situation or solve a problem. The biggest thing I’ve learned from both school and the beach is the importance of open communication.”
When Rothstein isn’t working or studying, she can be found gliding along the Christina River in Wilmington. Her first year on campus, she walked onto the women’s crew team having no prior history with the sport (this was before she started rowing the lifeguard boats), and she quickly became a force.
“From day one, when she first got on the rowing machine, Julia was putting up some of the best numbers on the team,” said head coach Kevin Gruber. “Typically, there is more of a learning or development curve, so this was really rare. She’s been our top athlete for some time.”
For the 2020-2021 academic year, Rothstein was named most valuable player, she received the varsity coach’s award for contributions to the team both tangible and intangible, and she earned a first-team designation, meaning she is among the highest performing rowers in her league.
“Not only is she our top athlete, she’s one of our top students, all the time,” Gruber said. “And she’s one of our most reliable teammates, all the time. There is a consistency there, a steadiness to her approach, that is really unique. The way she lives her life is just really special.”
The team practices year round, up to 15 hours per week, and this does not include travel time back and forth from the river — a nearly 40-minute trek, roundtrip. The training regime regularly calls for catching a bus from campus at 4:30 a.m. (or, on a late day, 5 a.m.) and rowing between six and eight miles in one session. Put simply, the sport requires an intense commitment for someone already maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average and — oh, yea — a part-time job tutoring in UD’s Mathematical Sciences Learning Laboratory.
“But she makes it look effortless,” Gruber said. “I think she almost gets overlooked in a way, because she makes it look so easy. I know she must have a bad day once in a while, but you would never know it.”
Rothstein confirmed: Despite her consistently positive demeanor, the bad days do happen. At the beginning of her university career, time management (or, rather, lack thereof) was the equivalent of a flash rip current in the ocean — it threatened to pull her down quickly and in dramatic fashion. But, she said, she has since learned how to avoid that all-too-common college pitfall: “Put your phone down. Put all your distractions away.”
As an upperclassman and a leader on her team, Rothstein is looking forward to paying forward such hard-earned wisdom — she is always happy to volunteer as “designated lunch taker-outer” when prospective rowers visit campus.
“I have loved all of my experiences at UD, so it’s so fun to talk them up and really highlight all the good things there are about this University and its culture. Everyone always seems to be happy here,” said Rothstein, adding that her team is a second family. “Our main motto is: ‘I’ve got your back’. ”
This sense of camaraderie among Blue Hens, which Rothstein said drew her to UD in the first place, has permeated her entire college experience. It is one of the factors that recently led her to apply for a fifth year on campus as part of a master’s program in data science.
After that? It remains to be seen where her lifeguarding and actuarial careers take her. But one thing is certain: Rothstein is likely to keep dominating — in the water or out.
“There’s only one way to put it,” Gruber said. “She’s a superstar.”