Lifeguard competition shows off inner athletes

Chad Shagren, USLA

The lifeguard competition is primarily intended to encourage lifesavers to develop, maintain and improve the physical and mental skills needed to save lives.

CAPE MAY, N.J. -- At 59 years old, Susan Wallis has completed 36 Ironman events and is contemplating an ultra marathon -- just for fun.

Her secret?

She found the fountain of youth in sand, wind, sunshine and sunscreen as a volunteer lifeguard with the American Red Cross Lifesaving Core in Jacksonville, Fla. Her fit 115-pound frame covered in speckled skin speaks of 10 years in the sun. But it's her health that benefits the most from the summer activity.

Over the weekend, Wallis participated in her fourth United States Lifeguard Association Championships in New Jersey. It was a gathering of 1,000 lifeguards from around the country competing in lifesaving events.

From 300-yard swims to sandy beach runs to ocean kayaking and surfboard rescuing, Wallis and her lifeguard brethren looked more like coast guard trainees then stereotypical Baywatch figures. The USLA competition gives guards a chance to display their inner athlete. The top six men and six women will continue on to the World Lifesaving Championship in November.

Chad Shagren, USLA

Los Angeles County lifeguards have won the USLA competition for 26 consecutive years. It helps that the beaches there are open year-round.

These types of lifesaving championships are held worldwide. They are primarily intended to encourage lifesavers to develop, maintain and improve the essential physical and mental skills needed to save lives in the aquatic environment, according to the International Lifesaving Federation.

"When I think of lifeguarding I don't really think athlete, I think safety," said Todd Gahling, who watched the competition. "But from the looks of it, they are athletes."

Wallis isn't alone in her athletic feats; most of the competitors do other sports to stay fit for their day job on the beach, which requires stamina and strength. For them, lifeguarding isn't just a job, it's a way of life.

"To keep in shape, I'm swimming, running, biking and I also do CrossFit to stay in shape for the job." Wallis said. "Guarding is really a subculture that controls your world."

Young swimmers who use lifeguarding as a summer job during school breaks dominate the yearly competition, which alternates between California and the Jersey shore. For Wallis the competition isn't as fierce since she is one of three guards in the 50-59 age group.

"I can't wait until I turn 60 next year and I'm in a group all of my own," Wallis joked.

Drive and competitiveness are common among lifeguards. Taylor Spivey, 21, from the Los Angles Country Lifeguard Association, suffers from asthma but is a top competitor. Spivey placed second in the American Ironwoman event and Women's Board Race this year.

"I started guarding when I was 9 so this has always been a fun thing to do to cross train for swimming season," Spivey said "It's also a very important job; one really rough day I made 23 saves in a few hours. It's great to know that those people are alive because of me."

Spivey swims at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she is majoring in architecture. She is struggling with the decision most guards have to make after college, when they no longer have summer breaks. Do they enter the real world and get a 9-5 job or try to make a career out of guarding?

In places like Los Angeles, it's easier to make a career out of guarding because beaches are open year-round. This also helps L.A. County guards dominate the USLA competition, which they have won for 26 consecutive years.

"Los Angeles County and Monmouth County in New Jersey battle for the title every year because their large size enables them to place guards in tons of events," said Ed Zebrowski, competition committee chair for USLA.

Guards who struggle to hang up their buoys and enter the real world should probably follow Wallis, who won seven out of eight events in her age group over the weekend. The tanned mom of two seems to have found a balance between lifesaving and having a life off the sand.

"Being around these kids and in the sun keeps me young, it's the best way to live and make a living," Wallis said.

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