Making the lifeguard leap

Samantha Olson slowly stepped to the edge of the Balboa Pier as the sun beat down on her tanned shoulders.

"It's only 1.7 seconds, and then you'll be smiling for six days straight," Newport Beach lifeguard Ross Sinclair said to the 10-year-old, encouraging her to make the jump.

With fear in her eyes and zinc oxide on her nose and cheeks, Olson put her hands to her sides and stepped off the pier, landing with a splash in the 65-degree water.

She then swam to a group of about 20 others who were treading water around their instructor on a bright goldenrod paddleboard.

Olson was one of about 800 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds who made the leap off the pier in their bright red bathing suits Monday afternoon as a part of the Newport's Junior Lifeguard program, which teaches its young participants about ocean safety, said Skeeter Leeper, a lifeguard officer and the program's supervisor.

A total of 1,311 junior lifeguards will have the opportunity to jump off the pier sometime during the program, which runs from June 25 to Aug. 14.

Sinclair, wearing a red bucket hat, said the pier is an important tool that lifeguards use when the surf makes it difficult to get out to a rescue. In addition to its practical value for aspiring lifeguards, he said the pier jump is something the kids can look forward to each summer.

"But I think the parents might enjoy it a bit more," he added with a laugh.

Circular bins created a barrier to keep back the crowds of parents and relatives armed with iPhones and cameras, excited to document their children taking part in the junior lifeguard tradition.

For some, the day was a family affair.

Twin brothers Kevin and Nicholas Marheine, 10, sat on two of the bins in their matching red-and-white baseball caps and junior lifeguard uniforms. The two had jumped off the pier earlier that day, but made the trip back to cheer on their cousin, Grace Snider, 12.

While Kevin jumped last year, Monday was the first time Nicholas mustered up the courage to go through with it too.

"My papa gave me this lucky penny," Nicholas said, reaching into the Velcro pocket of his boardshorts. "It worked."

A little after 3 p.m. the final junior lifeguard opted not to jump, after standing by the edge of the pier's open wooden gate for a few minutes. About 70% to 80% of junior lifeguards end up jumping off the pier at some point, said lifeguard Capt. Mike Halphide, director of the Junior Lifeguard program.

"If it wasn't scary — at least a little bit — it wouldn't be worth doing," he said.

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