Thousands of junior and professional lifeguards are competing in Seal Beach on Friday and Saturday for the California regional championships, and Los Angeles County is diving into the waters with a historically strong team.
The 29th annual California Surf Lifesaving Association Championships (CSLAC) regional competition will have 3,000 lifeguards from 30 agencies along the California coast running the beach, traversing the tide and paddling in relays for bragging rights.
Every event incorporates lifeguarding skills and activities. The Run-Swim-Run calls competitors to run 200 meters on the beach, swim 400 meters and run another 200 meters in the sand.
"The first part is easy, but once they get out of the water, that's when you start seeing the faces change," said Adam Sandler, spokesman for the event.
Alison Riddle, 25, and Brian Murphy, 28, said they have a passion for lifeguarding. They said they work the towers because they love the job, but the championships aren't bad, either.
Both have won overall points in national competitions representing LA County, whose lifeguard teams have won 30 out of 34 national competitions, 24 consecutively.
"This year will be 25," said Mike Frazer, chief lifeguard for LA County. "We have a really strong team."
Ocean knowledge and adaptability are high priorities for a lifeguard in LA County, whose 72 miles of coastline see 54 million visitors annually, Frazer said.
Riddle, a lifeguard of three years who played water polo in college, said she was drawn to the profession by over 20 years of swimming experience.
"I wanted to use my skills to help people," she said.
Last year Riddle personally won five out of 12 events, catapulting her to top female point earner. She said she hopes for a repeat this year.
"Everyone is so supportive, we're a huge family," she said. "We're all competitive, but you don't want to do well at the expense of others."
That family, while large, is exclusive. Los Angeles employs 900 lifeguards, 150 of whom are fulltime.
About 350 hopefuls try out for the position, but only 50 are chosen after a grueling 1,200-meter ocean race, interviews and background checks, and a six-week training program, Frazer said.
He added that due to budget cuts the LA County lifeguards have not held one of these tryouts in a couple years, although they have had enough guards to fill the towers, due partially to the economy but mostly to passion.
"(Lifeguards) love the ocean, and it's in their nature to help people," he said. "But once (we) get here, it's the camaraderie that keeps us."
Top male point-earner Murphy grew up in Redondo Beach and followed his older brothers into the Junior Lifeguard program where he developed a strong mentor relationship with his instructor.
LA's Junior Lifeguard program teaches about 3,200 kids, age nine to 17, water and ocean safety. Roughly half of them join the ranks of professional guards after the program.
"It has a way of bringing out the best in people," Murphy said.
Junior lifeguards aged will compete Friday, while professional lifeguards will battle Saturday north of the pier at Seal Beach. The events begin at 8 a.m. and power through until 4 p.m.
A team of about 80 lifeguards from Los Angeles County will travel to Cape May, NJ, for national competitions on August 3-6.