As a kid, I spent my summers bodysurfing in Santa Monica Bay. At that time, I looked up to lifeguards as the coolest people on the planet. After all, they got to hang out at the beach every day, rescue people from rip currents, receive public adoration, and serve as the ultimate authority on the beach. After I grew up and started working for Heal the Bay, I found that my opinion of ocean lifeguards really never changed. In particular, I was always impressed by those ocean guards that really cared about water quality in the Bay as well their responsibilities as lifesavers. In particular, (now Captain) Angus Alexander was a fixture at Heal the Bay meetings in Dorothy Green’s living room, and he’s been involved on Santa Monica Bay water quality issues for over two decades. Also, the legendary marine biologist and eco-warrior, Rim Fay, was a longtime guard.
A few years ago, my oldest son Zack started participating in the Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguard program. During the summers of 2009 and 2010, he was one of 50 junior guards that participated in the cadet program, a critical step in the training needed to become a beach lifeguard.
Zack’s mentor was Elden Onsgard, a legend in his own right in the National Lifeguard Championships and as a lifeguard instructor. Elden is the sort of mentor that parents dream their kid encounters. He helped impart an incredible work ethic on Zack and he did it in a way that was truly fun. Zack always worked really hard in school, but Elden gave him the confidence to start excelling in athletics. As a result, Zack came in second in the National Junior Lifeguard Run-Swim-Run last summer. Needless to say, Lisette and I were pretty shocked. I vividly remember texting Zack with a congratulatory note for finishing second in his heat, not the finals.
From Zack’s first summer with Elden, it was clear that he wanted to be a professional ocean lifeguard. That dream came true on Sunday. Zack finished rookie school and graduated as one of 43 new California State Parks Lifeguards, and he did it with honors. Not only did he win the first place award as the run-swim champ, he was awarded MVP of the Southern California rookie school.
Lisette and I watched the lifeguard graduation with uncontrollable pride. I was overwhelmed by the sight of Zack wearing his red trunks and navy blue State Parks shirt with the Grizzly Bear logo. He was no longer the little kid that flipped his glove the wrong way to field a grounder or struggled with a long left- footed pass on the pitch. My oldest son has grown into a man with the responsibility of saving the lives of people that are unaware of or underestimate the power of the ocean. He now has the coolest job in the world. He’s an ocean lifeguard. But he’s the first ocean lifeguard that I’ll be incredibly nervous and anxious about whenever the surf gets big and the rip currents get strong.
Look for Zack at a state beach this summer in Ventura County. Los Angeles County lifeguards are in the midst of a three-year hiring freeze, so there are fewer lifeguards watching the water during the summer, and the county hasn’t hired anyone from their last three classes of cadets. For the sake of Los Angeles County maintaining its national pre-eminence in lifeguarding and ocean safety, the County Board of Supervisors needs to halt the freeze before someone drowns on a hot weekend with a big summer swell due to the lack of an adequate number of guards.