Junior Lifeguards compete in Battle of the Beach

Junior lifeguard girls head for the water in the ocean buoy swim competition.
Junior lifeguard girls head for the water in the ocean buoy swim competition.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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While a lot of us spent a sweltering day in air-conditioned offices or overheating cars, a few hundred 9- to 17-year-olds ran on the sand and worked through the waves Wednesday at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro. KPCC’s Brian Watt observed the competition at the 6th annual Junior Lifeguard Battle of the Beach.

Brian Watt: The games began with an ocean buoy swim. Los Angeles County lifeguard Keith Johnson called out instructions.

Keith Johnson (on bullhorn): The first orange buoy, you’re going to right shoulder that buoy.

Watt: That means swim a good ways out and pass the floating buoy with your right shoulder, then round another buoy and return to the shore. As almost anyone would be on such a hot day, the 15 or so 11-year-old girls at the sandy starting line were eager to hit the water.

[Bullhorn sounds; cheering starts; water splashing]

Watt: Junior lifeguards compete from Los Angeles County, L.A. city, and Avalon on Catalina Island. Along with the buoy swim, the event includes running, paddle board, and beach flag contests. Jeff Horn runs the Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguard Program.

Jeff Horn: The buoy swim that you see here is the bread and butter of what lifeguards do. They’re running from the sand, into shallow water, and they’re doing what we call high stepping, where they step high to get– they’re keeping their eye on the buoy, which would substitute for our victim. They’re going to be doing dolphin maneuvers through the surf, which is where they dive with their hands in front of their head to protect their head.

Watt: Almost 3,000 kids paid fees or won scholarships to participate in L.A. County’s five-week Junior Lifeguard program this summer. They're there to learn what grownup lifeguards do on a dozen beaches – from Cabrillo to Zuma. To qualify, they have to pass swimming tests, and Horn says a lot of kids return summer after summer. So most of them know already that the program involves more than working on a tan.

Horn: Some are shocked that they actually have to swim in the ocean. it’s a very rigorous program and we do everything we can to explain in advance that they’re gonna be swimming in the ocean, with waves, and the currents and all the things that come along with it.

The rewarding thing is when you see people who are afraid to go into the ocean beyond maybe their knees or their waist in the beginning of the program, and five weeks later, they’re actually swimming out a hundred yards out, they’re going out around peers, swimming long distances

[Moms cheering]

Joan Schmidt: Come on Court, let’s go. (applause) Catch the wave, catch the wave...

Watt: As her 11-year-old daughter Courtney “dolphins” closer to shore, Joan Schmidt of Rancho Palos Verdes cheers her on. Courtney has been swimming since she was 3 years old, and she’s taking first place in the buoy swim.

Joan Schmidt: I think she grows fins. She has fins on the side. She amazes me.
Watt: Does she want to be a lifeguard?
Joan Schmidt (to Courtney): Want to be a lifeguard one day?
Courtney Schmidt: Sure.
Anything to do with water, right?
Courtney Schmidt: Yeah.

Watt: Courtney Schmidt is the same age as Alyssa Squirrell, a junior lifeguard who died last week during, in a “speed drop” exercise off a boat in Huntington Beach. Joan Schmidt and other parents at this week’s contest called her death a freak accident that has not scared their children out of the water.

Joan Schmidt: I mean, I heard it was the first accident they’ve had since they started the program.
Amy Bates (another parent): Yeah, They’ve done over 30,000 of those jumps, and my son... he looks forward to those baywatch jumps every year.

Watt: Authorities are investigating the Huntington Beach accident. The L.A. County Junior Lifeguard program has suspended all rescue boat exercises until that investigation is done. Director Jeff Horn says his instructors addressed the incident with their young charges.

Horn: We wanted to say that it was a tragic accident, and all the more reason that they need to pay attention to the world around them and their environment, and listen to their instructors. When they tell them to do something, it’s for a good reason.

Watt: Horn says most kids in the program aren’t destined to work as lifeguards. But they show up for the camaraderie and the competition, and they finish the summer with confidence in the ocean.