Bob Burnside doesn't mind letting you in on his secret:
He cheated last year in becoming Grand Champion of the World Body Surfing Championships (WBSC) at the Oceanside Pier.
Burnside, of Palm Desert, said so himself Friday at the beginning of this year's 14th annual contest that has attracted nearly 400 body surfers from throughout California, Hawaii and even Brazil.
How else could it be explained that a 57-year-old man emerged as world champion--by far the oldest ever--against competitors like five-time champ Mike Cunningham of Gardena, who competes in the 25-34 age group, and teen-agers such as T.J. McIver of Laguna Hills and Andy Law of Cerritos.
Not the least bit apologetic, Burnside confessed: "I have a little mermaid out there that guides me around. She tells me where to go and when to go. Without her, I'd be a little minnow in a pool of sharks."
There you have it. Truth be known. Burnside's a cheater, even though no where in the rules does it state, that a body surfer can't apply the help of a mermaid. That's Bob.
Guess 30 years of experience as a lifeguard for the county of Los Angeles had its advantages.
Or maybe it was his work as a member of the world's first underwater recovery team in the 1950s. Those five guys, without precedent, set the standard for the way dead bodies are located and recovered in the seas. Burnside said they had about a 75% success rate.
Perhaps that is where Burnside met his lady friend. Help or no help, his feat at last year's championships was impressive.
Why, he even survived a maneuver called "shooting the pier"--a dangerous and illegal move where a body surfer gets sucked under the pier and into the hazardous pillars.
Burnside may want to think twice if his mermaid guides him that way again this year.
"Spectacular. It really was," said Dave Carter, a retired high school principal who witnessed the accidental stunt. "The old-timers on the pier really gave him a rousing ovation for that one."
Said Bill Missett, a director of the WBSC, "We consider him lucky to be able to maneuver himself through a dangerous condition. He is shrewd. He's a shrewd competitor, and he's very sharp."
Said Burnside of his accomplishment, "Winning the championship sort of capped the whole year. I had gone undefeated in every contest (five) up till then. But even then my goal was just to win my age bracket. I had no concept of winning the whole thing.
"To win that, at my age, was gratifying . . . damn gratifying. I've know a lot of those kids since the day they were born. Mike Cunningham and (two-time Grand Champion) Tim Casinelli (of Leucadia), I knew their dads."
Burnside had other advantages, too, that his younger counterparts did not.
Retired for the past seven years, Burnside has plenty of time to train. He swims every day, rides bicycles and runs occasionally.
Since he lives in Palm Desert, he doesn't have an ocean readily available, but he does have a good deal of friends up and down the coast that lend him a bed whenever a good swell kicks up.
And in the winter, it's off to the slopes.
An avid skier, Burnside moved to Mammoth from Los Angeles when he retired from lifeguarding as the county's deputy director of operations, the second highest position in the field.
He went there not only to ski, but to compete. In 1987, he won the overall Western United States master's division points championship in the downhill.
But the next year, he blew out his knee and shoulder in a spectacular crash. He took last year off because of the injuries, but plans on competing again this winter.
Burnside used to play water polo in the 1940s for El Segundo High and USC. He also competes in masters' swimming events, and last week won the 100-meter back stroke in the Southern Pacific Assn. long course championships.
Through lifeguarding, diving and dealing in rare automobiles, Burnside has built a rather comfortable nest egg for himself, his wife, Annette, and his yellow Labrador retriever, Molly.
"I don't want for anything," he said. "I have a nice house, an attractive wife, two daughters and eight grandchildren."
Not to mention his little fish-tailed friend in the water.
Competition in the World Body Surfing Championships, which began Friday for the younger age divisions, continues today and Sunday beginning at 6:30 a.m. on both sides of the Oceanside Pier. . . . Tim Casinelli of Leucadia, David Ross of Carlsbad, Keith Hoffman of San Diego and Chris Dunn of Oceanside won their first-round heats Friday in the men's 18-24 division. John Paul O'Neill of Chula Vista won his heat in the men's 15-17 division, and Juniper Fitzgerald of Encinitas took hers in the women's 12-17 division. . . . The Chargers' new general manager, Bobby Beathard, another El Segundo High graduate, competed in the contest in 1989. Unfortunately, he's a little too busy this year.