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Blue Grit : Dip Separates the Lifeguards From the Dilettantes

Times Staff Writer

Forget the flowery bonnets and pastel frocks. The Easter finery worn to Sunday morning’s function along the chilly coast consisted of rubberized swim caps and spandex swimsuits, topped off by lots of sweat suits and towels.

Braving brisk air and even brisker water, 177 people spent Easter morning on the shore of Huntington Beach State Park competing for one of the most revered positions in California: lifeguard.

“At first I thought this was sacrilegious, having it on Easter,” said Steve Lesko, 31, who was one of 57 returning lifeguards who had to swim 1,000 yards in the frigid, rough water in less than 20 minutes to qualify for rehiring.

Easter Was Fitting

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But, he said facetiously, he came to believe the timing was all too fitting.

“You ‘hit the wall’ out there,” feel like you can go no farther, “and then you come back to life. So it’s very appropriate,” said Lesko, who worked last year at Huntington Beach State Park and for 13 years before that at Jones Beach in New York.

“Plus,” he added, “you pray a lot.”

In addition to the returning lifeguards, 120 new applicants took the plunge Sunday, the first step toward a seat in a tower overlooking a California state beach. The uninitiated not only had to swim 1,000 yards in rough water in less than 20 minutes, like the returning lifeguards, but had a second regimen: Run 200 yards in soft sand, swim 400 yards in the ocean, then run another 200 yards--all in less than 11 minutes.

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Lifeguards Rescued 5

Of the 120, 31 never made it to the second tests--and five of those had to be rescued by lifeguards supervising the competition.

Rod Caunan, 24, of Los Angeles did not make it to the end of the first test, although he swam back to shore without a lifeguard’s help. A former Los Angeles city lifeguard who now works on dry land as a claims adjuster for Xerox, Caunan said he had entered the competition not for a job but “just for the challenge.”

But, he said, he was body-slammed a few times in the water by ambitious competitors, knocking his breath out of him.

“It’s usually fun, but there are guys out there to kill,” he said.

The run-swim-run test eliminated 11 more hopefuls, leaving 78. But these are not lifeguards yet. First, the applicants must undergo interviews for positions at seven state beach districts. Those who pass the interview must then participate in a 6-day training course to learn rescue and lifesaving techniques, first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Only the top graduates are hired, as positions are available. (About 30 openings are expected in the Huntington Beach area, lifeguard officials said.)

Gus Avila, a state lifeguard in charge of Sunday’s competition, said Saturday’s storm “may have scared some people away,” although the water temperature--which he estimated at 60 degrees--was about normal for the annual spring competition.

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Actually, the returning lifeguards, out for their annual requalification test, admitted to more reservations about plunging into the water than did the tryouts.

“I don’t want to do this!” Riley Roice said with a laugh as he prepared for the ocean swim. Roice, 32, of Long Beach said he has been a lifeguard “since the towers were made of wood and the lifeguards were made of steel.”

As a chilly breeze blew the storm clouds away Sunday morning, the competitors stripped down to Speedo swimsuits and goggles. A few of the returning lifeguards donned wet suits--allowed for the competition, although they tend to slow the swimmer down, one lifeguard said--to help keep warm.

“We’re old,” one lifeguard said, “and it’s cold out there.”

Whooping, Shouting Start

With a blast of an air horn, the returning lifeguards bolted into the surf, whooping and shouting.

Bram Tester, 20, of Fullerton, who served his first year as a lifeguard last year in Huntington Beach, was the first to run back onto the beach after his swim. Through labored breath and chattering teeth, he proclaimed: “It felt good.”

A veteran lifeguard, Eric Emery, 51, who has been a lifeguard since 1954 (the last 30 years with the state), passed his requalifying swim test last month but went the 1,000 yards again Sunday to keep some of his colleagues company, he said.

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Emery, who teaches English at Edison High School when he isn’t on the sand, said the water temperature “really isn’t bad, but there’s a tremendous current.” He finished, he said, in “19-something"--ahead of a fellow lifeguard and former student, Ziggy Muhlhauser.

Water Polo Teacher Won

“My old teacher beat me!” Muhlhauser, 33, said of Emery, his former water polo coach. Saturday’s storm had made Muhlhauser apprehensive about the swim; he and his wife even came out to the beach Saturday night to see whether the water was choppy and difficult to swim.

When the storm passed by morning, “we lucked out. I got by by the skin of my teeth,” he said of his time of 19 1/2 minutes.

The new applicants entered the water a bit more quietly than their experienced counterparts and returned with mixed reviews. Steve West, 16, a sophomore from Huntington Beach High School, finished first, 13 1/2 minutes after the race’s start. “It got warm, once you got past the waves,” he said.

“It was hell,” another competitor said.

“I never want to swim again,” said Corry Felix, 16, from El Dorado High School, who finished third among female applicants in the 1,000-yard swim. “I’m cold and tired. . . . On the way back, a wave hit me hard, and I thought, I’m not going to make it in.”

Competition director Avila that he had no say in the scheduling of the competition on Easter Sunday.

Timing Bothered Few

The decision, he said, was made at state lifeguard district headquarters. But the timing appeared to bother only a few participants. Veteran lifeguard Emery, who said the swim made him rearrange his plans, toweled off and promply left with his wife to get dressed for church.

Kim Bhesania, 15, of Fountain Valley, a sophomore at La Quinta High School, said she was eager to finish because a family Easter celebration was in store. “I have an egg hunt waiting for me,” she said.

Tiffany Seale, 19, of Costa Mesa had less festive but equally enjoyable plans for the rest of her Easter Sunday.

“I’m going to recuperate, eat, sleep and take a hot bath,” she said.


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