Wanted: Lifeguards

March 13, 2008 Print
Vol. 3, Issue 11, March 13-19, 2008

Christina Scannapiego
San Clemente Times

With tryouts last weekend, making the cut as a city lifeguard is no small feat

With the recent time change, 7:30 a.m. never felt more like 6:30 a.m. down at the city lifeguard tryouts on Sunday. The sun had barely risen, that early-morning fog sat on the sand and water like it never wanted to leave and the ocean conditions blackboard read a daunting 57 degrees. Brrrr. Now imagine standing at the ocean’s edge, about to strip down to a Speedo, jumping in and swimming as fast as possible, a distance that equates to the end of the San Clemente Pier and back. For the guys and girls trying out for the coveted city lifeguard positions this summer, this scene was a brutal reality. While their friends and family accompanied them for support, dressed snugly in UGG boots and sweatpants, these 37 kids lined up at the Marine Safety Division building near the pier at 7:30 a.m., waiting to sign in—and for the games to commence.

Throughout the morning they’d have to participate in an 800-yard swim, a 1,200-yard run-swim-run and an oral interview process. They’re not allowed wetsuits, goggles, fins or any other swimming aid. “The water was actually toasty in comparison to what it was like [at this time] a few years ago, when the temp that year was 52,” says Marine Safety Lieutenant Rod Mellot.

As they jumped in, it almost looked like a hazing at first glance—but there’s a good reason for denying them anything that may help them through their on-average 10-minute swim. “Lifeguards are hired to make rescues, and most of the time, they don’t have time to put on a wetsuit,” says Mellot.

And it’s not like these kids are out of shape. Most trying out are—or were—on a swim, water polo or surf team, and they’ve already got a love for the ocean or they just wouldn’t have been there. But that cold water can be a real shock to the system. “We do try to help out the kids who are interested in trying out,” says Mellot. “We make sure they know that even though they swim in a pool, the ocean temperature’s a lot different. We recommend that they do a couple swims first to get acclimated and know what to expect.”

San Clemente High School junior and swim and water polo team member Colton Kummer wore trunks surfing most of the winter just to be ready for that frigid tryout. SCHS’s Matthew Thompson impressed everyone by coming in first in the pier swim—but according to his dad, Peter, Matthew was practically throwing up halfway through. “Last night at dinner he ate a burrito,” Peter jokes while he watched his son leading the orange-capped frenzy in the water. “I tried to warn him, ‘Dude, don’t eat a burrito,’ but he didn’t listen.” Sixteen-year-old Dennis White, another SCHS student, did the same swim the day before tryouts and a week prior just to practice. And as if the first 800-yard swim wasn’t enough—two kids actually had to be brought in and 14 didn’t make the cut-off time of 13 minutes, 13 seconds—the run-swim-run’s got to drive home the fact that this just ain’t easy.

“After swimming in that cold water, all the little pebbles and grains of sand started feeling like little needles in my feet,” White says about the difficulty of running in the soft sand. White placed fourth in the pier swim and 11th in the run-swim-run, though—in fact, a lot of the group did really well this year. According to Mellot, typically one or two contenders outshine everyone else, then come two or three more and, after that, results are pretty spread out. “We were very pleased with everyone [this year],” he says. “It was a really strong group of kids, and the entire top 20 were all close together.”

Twenty-one contenders actually passed the first event and, after that, 18 were interviewed during the oral part of the tryout. Of those 18, 13 were invited into cadet orientation training, which consists of 92 hours of training. Mellot says eight to 10 of those will likely earn a job. “The process is very competitive, and anyone can get dropped if they aren’t cutting it during those four weekends of training,” Mellot explains. “They really have to push themselves. But it’s the type of kid who has that real competitive edge is the kind of kid we hire.” And once lifeguards are hired, they don’t have to try out again; they just need to keep their training up to date from year to year.

“It’s gonna be tough,” agrees White, “but I’m confident I’m gonna make it as long as I work hard.” After all, that huge effort will have been worth it to score—hands down—the best summer job there is. “I love being at the beach,” says White. “I’ve lived here my whole life. My brother’s a lifeguard, and I’ve always wanted to work with him.”

It seems the job is passed down, in a way, through a lot of generations. White’s 19-year-old brother, Kyle White, will fulfill his fourth year as a lifeguard this summer. (Kyle was at the tryouts, literally screaming for his brother and his friends to keep pushing themselves through the pack as they ran by.) Colton’s dad, Brian Kummer, passed his first tryout in 1980 and says the process doesn’t look like it’s changed much. “Looking back on it, those were some of the best and most fun years of my life,” Kummer says. “I think any lifeguard you talk to will say that.”

Do you have what it takes?

• Towers are fully staffed every year from June 19 to Labor Day.

• Last year, San Clemente lifeguards rescued more than 3,800 swimmers.

• Beyond learning how to perform all types of ocean rescue, lifeguards become proficient in CPR and defibrillator use, rescue vehicle and PWC rescue-craft operation.

• The city of San Clemente ocean lifeguards (not to be confused with California state lifeguards who are California State Park employees) make $14.99–$18.23 per hour ($15.52–$18.86 as of July 200. Trainees make $8.29 per hour.

• Applicants must be at least 16 years old with valid work permit.

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