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Lifeguards Put Their Strength, Skills to the Test

Times Staff Writer

Lifeguard Renee Locarnini tore through the Huntington Beach surf Friday and came out of the water with a “rescued” swimmer and a firm grip on first place.

Locarnini, 26, was one of 600 lifeguards who gathered in Huntington Beach for the annual National Lifeguard Championships, and she takes her lead into today’s women’s finals.

“You can say you’re the national champion for a year,” said Locarnini, a Venice Beach lifeguard who lives in Westchester. “It means I’m in my top shape, and it’s something for me to take pride in.”

The three-day event, held for the first time in Huntington Beach, featured tests of physical endurance in a quest for the national championship.

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Competitors came from Florida, Texas, Illinois, Hawaii, New York and Australia, among other places. They competed in races including a 400-meter surf swim, a rescue race, a paddle-board contest and the iron man and iron woman race, which mixes running, swimming, paddling and surf skiing. The tournament ends today.

On Friday afternoon, under a scorching sun and before a cheering crowd, Locarnini swam about 100 yards to “rescue” Tracey Crothers, 19, of Westchester, then towed her in with one of those familiar orange rescue floats. She came in first, in just under four minutes, in the preliminary round of the women’s rescue race and advances to the finals. “This is the true lifeguard race because this is what we do every day,” Locarnini said, catching her breath.

In the men’s rescue race, Doug Leach, 24, of Tustin and Bryce Elser, 21, of Huntington Beach made it to the finals. The men, both lifeguards for Huntington Beach, prepared for the event by arriving at work an hour early to swim.

“This is the pride and joy of lifeguards,” Leach said. “We have to be in pretty good shape, and we’re competing against some of the fittest people. It’s a chance to compare yourself to other lifeguards.”

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Four Australians -- Corey McMeeking, 22, Scott McCartney, 19, James Turnham, 20, and Aaron Helmer, 18 -- were among the competitors.

“This is the culture for Australians,” said McMeeking, comparing it to Americans’ excitement about baseball. “This is real huge in Australia.”

The men flew to South Carolina in April to work as lifeguards at Myrtle Beach for the summer. Their boss told them about the competition and encouraged them to join. For two weeks, the men gathered to swim during their 45-minute lunch breaks.

“We’re really unprepared,” McMeeking said. “The American lifeguards are really good swimmers and really fit.”

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He said that in Australia, lifeguards do not go through rigorous training and that many are volunteers. But the team did well. It came in first in the 600-meter rescue board race and will be in the finals.


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