Now that my kids are older, my dream of sleeping in past 6 a.m. has become a reality on weekends for the first time in 18 years. In my eyes, my 11-year-old daughter Natalie’s insistence in competing in the Regional Paddle Board Race this past weekend was an unwelcome infringement on my modest aspirations. Natalie is an L.A. County Junior Lifeguard at Will Rogers and she’s recently learned to enjoy paddling. Race registration started at 7:30 a.m. and the race was off of Avenue I in South Redondo Beach, so a 6 a.m. wake-up was a must.
When my wife Lisette, Natalie and I parked and started walking down to the beach, I was struck by the fact that there were hundreds of cardinal and gold-clad children and adults on the beach (always uncomfortable for a lifetime Bruin). The fact that there was a moderate 2-4 foot swell delivering pure shorebreaking close-outs didn’t help either. I was having trouble visualizing how my 65-pound daughter (when wringing wet) was going to maneuver a foam paddle board through the surf to start and finish the race.
As I got closer to the beach, I saw that the sponsor of the race was Hennessey’s Tavern. The sight of hundreds of children wearing rash guards promoting a chain of bars struck me as more than a little odd. But then I remembered that it was the South Bay. What I mean by that is that Hennessey’s started in Hermosa Beach so a local sponsor made sense, although maybe Body Glove is a more appropriate sponsor for the JGs portion of the race.
After we waited in line to register, got Natalie’s race-rash guard and other swag, and had her race number drawn on her arm and leg, she was ready to go. The only problem was that the race didn’t begin for nearly a half hour. During the wait, I overheard many a kid express serious doubts about going through with the half-mile race in rough conditions. I asked Natalie if she really wanted to race and she gave me one of those “Yeah Dad” comments that sounded more like “Don’t be such a wuss” to my trained ear.
Right before 8:30, all of the 11-and-under girls were called to start off the race day. I didn’t quite understand why the first racers out were the youngest kids. Luckily, Natalie was in the second heat. The race was about to start when I heard the bagpipe sounds of “Amazing Grace” echoing along the beach. Seriously, there was a dude playing the bagpipes, blowing a song that made me wonder if all of the young girls would ever return again from the sea.
The brave girls in the first heat grabbed their boards and headed to the surf. Not one of them could make it through the breakers with their boards. Immediately, the ratio of lifeguards to young racers reached one to one. Some of the lifeguards grabbed all of the boards and took them out to the first buoy, while others helped the girls get through the surf during a 3-4 foot set. The race went off without a hitch. The girls paddled 400 yards to a buoy, made the turn, and headed back. That’s where the race ended. Then they left their boards and headed back to shore.
Next up was Natalie’s race. My anxiety level had dropped dramatically because all of the girls in the first heat survived, and although they looked exhausted, no one got hurt. Also, the boards stayed out at the first buoy, so no one had to try to paddle through the surf.
Foolishly, I didn’t bring any binoculars, so as soon as she started swimming past the breakers, she began to look like the other 21 cardinal and gold-clad swimmers. The race started, and all of the girls began paddling without incident. At the turn, it was clear that four girls were head and shoulders faster than the rest, with the winner dusting everyone by at least 10 board lengths. As the paddlers swam their way back to shore, I began to worry about Natalie. Would she be able to finish? Would she be too tired to swim back to shore? Would she ever want to participate in another paddle race?
About a minute later, Natalie came in through the pounding surf with a great, big smile on her face. She not only finished ninth in her very first paddle board race, she had a blast competing. As she ran up on shore, I ran to greet her and she leaped into my arms.
I didn’t care that I got soaked. She was so happy that she competed, had fun and finished. Hennessey’s gave all of the participants a pretty cool medal, so we’ll have a keepsake of the memory for years to come. Perhaps most importantly, the race reminded me that we often coddle our kids too much and, even under difficult circumstances at very young ages, they can surprise you by doing amazing, courageous things. You just have to give them the chance.