Orange County

Ben Carlson: Newport Beach's Lost Lifeguard Still Saving Lives

Ben Carlson remains the only lifeguard in the country to lose his life while on duty.

In Newport Beach, every July 6 is Ben Carlson Day.

Carlson was a lifeguard who died doing what he loved more than anything else: protecting people at the beach. And Carlson's sacrifice has united a community.

The Ben Carlson Foundation works towards making pool swimmers--not only ocean swimmers--safe.

Five years after their son's death, Teri and Chris Carlson are still wading through the emotions that never fade. They walk past heartfelt touchstones: the lifeguard tower that bears Ben Carlson's name; a nine-foot tall statue built in his honor.

"All these things soften the blow," Teri Carlson, the late lifeguard's mother, says. "You never get over it but it makes it more comforting."

The Orange County couple says their personal loss is now a story they share through the Ben Carlson foundation, which is focused on water safety.

"The way in which Ben gave his life is so different than so many other stories we hear," Chris Carlson, Ben Carlson's father, says.

Ben Carlson was a 32-year-old experienced Newport Beach lifeguard. He was, as described in a new film slated to be released on Sept. 3 on iTunes, "Part of Water" until the ocean took his life.

He died attempting to save a swimmer from the pounding surf.

An entire beach town went into mourning. Ben Carlson remains the only lifeguard in the country to lose his life while on duty.

For his family, it was not an end but a beginning.

After his death, Ben Carlson's parents say strangers reached out to them, people who understood lifeguards are humble heroes, and they say they made connections they never expected to make.

"You just never know how kind people can be and they reach out in amazing ways," Chris Carlson says.

For example, former lifeguard Spencer Pirdy knew he wanted to do something to pay it forward. So, he organized the ultimate paddle out: nearly nine hours in the grueling Pacific Ocean with dozens of lifeguards and surfers making their way roughly 30 miles from Catalina to the Newport Beach shoreline.

The group raised $60,000 in one day for the foundation.

"You go through these peaks and valleys during the event," Pirdy says. "It's a very emotional event, for me personally and I think for everyone in the event, because most of them knew Ben on personal level."

The Ben Carlson Foundation gives college scholarships to deserving lifeguards, and more funds have been used for a water safety summit. For example, lifeguards in Puerto Escondido got fins and buoys to rescue swimmers--equipment they never had until now.

"It's taken us far beyond what we thought originally and with some of the things ocean water safety, if it can do save a life, we're really pleased," Chris Carlson says.

The Carlsons say Ben was a super athlete who designed competitions still used in the junior lifeguard program to this day. Now, teens are in training to make Newport Beach a safe place to swim.

Chris Carlson says, "If you've gotta lose a child, what more honorable way could it happen, you know?"

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