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It’s a Swell Time for Lifeguards

Times Staff Writer

For the winners of the National Lifeguard Championships, there are no pots of prize money waiting after the final race through the water, no lucrative endorsement deals or Hollywood contracts. Afterward, they just return to their solitary towers on the sand, or to their other jobs in fire stations and classrooms, offices and factories.

“There’s not a lot of glory,” said Blaine Morgan, a 29-year-old part-time lifeguard for Los Angeles County who won the men’s Top Lifeguard title this year, a feat he has managed three of the last five years. “You just get a trophy. It’s more for pride.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 16, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Lifeguard championships: A photo caption in Sunday’s Section A describing the National Lifeguard Championships misidentified the two team members rowing a boat through the waves. The lifeguard manning the oars was Matt Nunnally and the person pushing the stern was Paul Elyseev, both of Monmouth County, N.J.

About 1,600 lifeguards converged on the sand in Huntington Beach for this year’s competition, a three-day event that concluded Saturday. More than 30 lifeguard teams drawn from agencies across the country competed in 12 events, including surf ski, boat races and team rescues of mock victims.

Morgan, who has been a lifeguard since he was 16 and now works as a firefighter for the city of Carlsbad, said experience in the ocean had as much to do with winning as athletic prowess. “The fastest swimmer in the pool -- he could kill me in the pool, but I could jump in the ocean and catch a wave and beat him,” he said.

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A Huntington Beach lifeguard, Micha Burden, won the Top Lifeguard title in the women’s category, while Los Angeles County continued its long run of dominance in the team competition.

“L.A.'s the best,” said Jim Simonelli, 59, a lifeguard from Monmouth County, N.J., whose team came in fourth. “We chase ‘em every year. Maybe one year we’ll get lucky. We compete like hell against each other, but we’re friends.”

Apart from athletes such as Morgan, no small part of L.A. County’s dominance in the competition derives from its success in the older age ranges. “We may not look like the 21- or 22-year-old statue of Adonis, but there’s a lot of pride,” said Jerry Lozano, 53, an L.A. County lifeguard who has worked as a lifeguard off and on for three decades.

The L.A. team fielded the event’s oldest competitor, 68-year-old John Matesich, a retired schoolteacher who continues to work every summer as a lifeguard, as he has for 50 years. “What keeps me going is competing with these young kids,” said Matesich, who cut his hand on the fin of a surf ski during an event for which he had trained all year.

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Matesich had to drop out to get stitches.

Bridget Rome, 34, an El Segundo woman who is a math and science tutor in addition to working as a lifeguard, said the competition is both a reunion of old friends and a morale-booster for people who often spend eight-hour shifts alone in their chairs. She said the job can be isolating.

“I really feel bad for the [lifeguard] agencies that don’t let people get out and come to this,” she said. “This is a highlight. It kind of reduces the burnout.”


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