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NEWPORT BEACH : Monster Has Them on the Run, Swim

Winning a mile-long ocean swim and foot race against about 700 other youths Thursday made Chas Leeper’s 15th birthday just a little bit sweeter.

After running a mile along the beach from Balboa Pier and swimming the mile back, Chas bodysurfed the last few feet to the beach, splashed out of the surf and ran up the shore across the finish line, fins and all, winning the Newport Beach Junior Lifeguards’ third annual Monster Mile event.

“I just tried to set a time to beat; I didn’t know what a good time was,” the four-year program veteran said after catching his breath. He made the course in 28:30--a minute and a half over his goal.

Sprawled on his back just past the finish line, he threw a handful of sand at his gleeful mother for pointing that out. She laughed.

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“I think he’s awesome!” she said to anyone would listen.

Chas credited his victory to swimming and playing water polo in his freshman year at Walnut High School.

He was one of the oldest competitors from about 700 junior lifeguards who end the summer-long program next week.

Thursday morning’s Monster Mile celebrated the accomplishments of the 9- to 15-year-olds who spent the summer learning lifesaving and water safety techniques.

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For each of the past two years, the program has begun with a costume contest. “The event came about because we wanted to sponsor a competition event that was unique throughout the country,” event coordinator Greg Roberts said.

Sweltering heat discouraged many competitors from dressing up this year, although the contest gives even first-time junior lifeguards a chance to win.

Barbara Melum, mother of 10-year-old Tony Melum, said he and his sister devised his costume--a demon mask, straw hat, grass skirt and a coconut shell halter top--so he would have a chance to win something.

He did. First place for best costume, and the loudest cheers from his peers.

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As Tony handed his costume to his mother, she reminded him of what was important: “Just try to finish,” she said. “I don’t care if you win. Just do your best.”

While parents and instructors hope the youngsters learn from eight weeks of training, the youths want what all kids want from summer vacation.

“It’s like, the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” said 11-year-old Katie Hall of Costa Mesa. “It’s really hard, but it’s really fun.”

She dressed up as a “beach bum monster,” in purple stockings, a white petticoat, an inflatable swim ring belting a tie-dyed T-shirt and water wings tied to her hair.

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“I’m one of those monsters that goes to the beach and doesn’t exactly have the right stuff to wear,” she said. “I’ve got the floaties in my hair so my head won’t sink.” Christine Woller, 10, of Newport Beach had “Gotcha” written amid mystical symbols on her face. Her ponytail was held in place with rubber-banded bones.

“Everybody thinks I look like Pebbles” Flintstone, she lamented. Her goal this year was simply to improve after finishing “the very last” in last year’s mile.

“I don’t think I’m gonna do very good, but I’m going to try my hardest,” she vowed.

Winners in the 14- and 15-year-old group were Chas of Walnut and Kelly Stewart of Newport Beach; in the 12- and 13-year-old group, Gray Lunde and Erin Hartig; and 9- to 11-year-old group, Aaron Piersol and Amy Murphy. All are of Newport Beach.

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