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These Athletes Attain Goal--of Saving Lives

Within a three-minute round, a boxer can win a seven-figure purse and a world championship.

In less than four minutes, a world-class runner covers a mile.

In two minutes, a football team--with the help of a dozen commercials--can score the touchdown it needs to get to or win a Super Bowl.

In a little less than five minutes, either Debi Thomas or Katarina Witt will be queen of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

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These are all athletes, as the world perceives what an athlete should be. Indeed, their exploits tend to become hyperbolized. How many times has an announcer sternly warned: “This is it. There is no tomorrow.”

Hogwash.

I’ll give you athletes. I’ll give you Jose Hurtado, Bruce Robinson and Marshall Parks. Let me tell you what they can accomplish in about three minutes.

You’ve never heard of them?

You won’t see them on “Wide World of Sports.” You won’t see them on Wheaties boxes. You won’t see them on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

They don’t even have agents, for heaven’s sake.

After they did their thing one afternoon this week, a couple of appreciative people patted Hurtado on the back and thanked him.

“Who can compare money to getting that kind of gratification?” he asked.

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Obviously, Messrs. Hurtado, Robinson and Parks are different, and they are different in a special way.

Their specialty, to be sure, is hardly a sport. It really is do or die. If they fail, forget about tomorrow. There really won’t be any.

Hurtado, Robinson and Parks are lifeguards.

They came to my attention one morning this week when I was reading a small story at the bottom of a news page. They, individually, did not come to my attention. The story simply reported that lifeguards had pulled nine members of a Norwegian youth basketball team from a rip current off Ocean Beach.

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Lifeguards? I thought it must have taken an army of them to pull nine kids out of the water.

Upon further investigation, I learned that Hurtado, Robinson and Parks were the heroes. And I mean hero in a sense a little deeper than hitting a grand slam in the ninth inning. They went into the water and pulled out all nine kids in about the time it would take Jeffrey Leonard to circle the bases.

My first thought was that this was obviously a warm, human-interest story, San Diego lifeguards saving Norwegian basketball players. And, obviously, it is.

But it’s more than that.

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To the lifeguards involved, it hardly mattered who was in the water. Someone was in trouble. For all they knew, they could have been risking their lives for escaped felons. They would have done it just the same.

And they had to have the conditioning and the courage to do the job.

I suspected I would find that Hurtado, Robinson and Parks--in the order in which they went into the water--are not exactly couch potatoes and probably never have been.

Hurtado, 23 and the young lion of the group, ran cross-country and track and field for Clairemont High School, placing 11th in the county in cross-country his senior year and accomplishing bests of 4:35 in the mile and 9:45 in the two-mile in track.

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“Mine is strictly a running background,” he said. “I took a swimming class at Mesa College, and I was just a thrasher. I had to develop technique and become more aquatically dynamic.”

His goal now is to compete in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

Robinson, 30, was an All-American high school water polo player at Merced High School. He was all-conference at Mesa and later played at UC San Diego. He has gone from a sport in which the idea to the uninitiated seems to be to drown the next guy and into business doing exactly the opposite.

It may seem incongruous that a water-oriented person should come from Merced, but consider that summer temperatures thereabouts are normally 100-plus.

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The same logic led Parks, 39, to water. He was reared in Hughson, an agricultural community not too far up the road from Merced.

“We lived near canals and irrigation ditches,” he recalled. “My parents sent us to swimming lessons so we wouldn’t fall into a canal and drown. Later, after working on a peach ranch, we’d jump into a canal and cool off.”

But Parks’ athletic interests were more conventional. He played football and basketball in high school and football for Modesto College. It’s not surprising that he is now a triathlete, but more because he is goal-oriented than in search of acclaim.

These fellows of varying interests, backgrounds and ages are all united now by a common pursuit.

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Saving lives.

And so it was that fate brought Norwegian athletes into the domain of these athletes early Wednesday afternoon. John Greenwood, a lifeguard working in the tower, saw that the kids were getting close to an area of perilous underwater currents that race toward the open sea.

Hurtado and Robinson were dispatched to warn them of the danger.

“By the time we got there,” Robinson said, “two guys had dropped off into the underwater river. Jose went in with a board. By the time he hit the water, three more had fallen in . . . and I went in with swim fins and a rescue buoy.”

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By now, Parks, who had been working on pay sheets, was racing to the scene, and he went in as well.

It was all happening so quickly, and frantically, that a fourth lifeguard (in uniform rather than shorts) was whipping his shoes off.

Then suddenly, it was over. Everyone was calm--"The kids were always calm,” Robinson said--and safe.

Who knows exactly how long it took?

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I heard 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes. Whatever. No one put a clock on it, because these guys weren’t out there for records or medals or guaranteed contracts.

Jose Hurtado, Bruce Robinson and Marshall Parks are my kind of athletes.


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