Littlest lifeguards strut their stuff in Santa Cruz

Two-day Nor Cal competition draws sea of red
By Jessica A. York, Santa Cruz Sentinel

The 7-year-old girls get a running start as she heads to the water at Main Beach in the surf balls contest during the NorCal Little Guards competition Wednesday morning. More than 500 Little Guards from Santa Cruz as well as Capitola and State Parks competed. Thursday brings nearly 1,000 Junior Guards, 9- to 17-year-olds to the same beach to compete. Local Junior Guards also will welcome their peers from Half Moon Bay, Stinson beach and Monterey to the competition Thursday. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ >> If the swarming red mass Wednesday was any indication, area beaches should be that much safer after this summer.

Hundreds of swimsuit-wearing boys and girls ages 6 to 8 spread out along Main Beach in Santa Cruz, seeking to be the kings and queens of the sand and waves for Northern California Junior and Little Guards. The annual competition serves as a display of lifeguard skills after weeks of summer training.

From behind plastic net fencing, Eryn Rodger of Santa Cruz cheered on her son Casey as he sprinted in and out of the water in search of bobbing yellow tennis balls Wednesday afternoon. Casey, who recently turned 9, is the third child in the family to join the lifeguard program. He has shown new perseverance and self confidence since taking part, Rodger said.

“One of the most important things about this is it teaches you how to win and it teaches you how to lose,” Rodger said. “It’s about teamwork, and excellence as both an individual and a team.”

Rodger said she takes pride in her children’s ocean skills after going through the program. Not only are her children safer themselves, but they have helped other outs of “really sticky situations” on several instances, she said.

“In Santa Cruz, it’s really imperative that your kid learn ocean know-how,” Rodger said.

State Parks Little Guard Paul Scott Rohde, center, leads the charge up the first sand hill as the Challenge Run Relay gets underway for the 8-year-olds on Main Beach Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

The latest batch of about 500 lifeguards-in-training gathered from programs in Santa Cruz, Capitola and local state beach programs. The day’s competitions ranged from run-swim-run and boogie board relays to breakneck tennis ball “rescues” from the surf.

Santa Cruz State Junior Lifeguard instructor Tanner Gilbert of Aptos went through the summer program, starting at age 6. Now in college, Gilbert said he was happy to spend the summer giving back “to the program that helped me so much.” The junior lifeguard program offers a combination of both water safety and recreation, he said.

“Overall, it’s beach knowledge and ocean conditions,” Gilbert said of the program. “They know how to be safe in the water. And you get the sense of community, of family.”

A group of 7-year-old boys get going in the surf balls contest during the NorCal Little Guards competition Wednesday morning at Main Beach in Santa Cruz. Nearly 1,000 Junior Guards, 9- through 17-years-old, will compete on Thursday where local Junior Guards will welcome their peers from Half Moon Bay, Stinson Beach and Monterey to the competition. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Haven Finley, 8, of Santa Cruz, who stood taking a breather from one of the day’s competitions, said the various exercises were pretty tiring, but she particularly enjoyed the long distance run challenge.

Asked how she felt about her life-saving skills after the summer program, Haven said she would try to help someone she saw struggling in the water, if she had a boogie board handy.

“Or I’d tell a lifeguard,” Haven said.

Haven’s mom, Danielle Finley, said she went through the lifeguard training 30 years ago, and that it was “kind of a tradition in Santa Cruz.”

Dad Charlie Baum, a prosecutor for Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office, said he has seen his 8-year-old Alexandra start to grow from bookworm to California girl after taking part in Capitola’s lifeguard training.

“She’s in great shape and is a lot stronger,” said Baum. “And she wants a wetsuit for Christmas.”

City of Santa Cruz Little Guard Dahlia Hoffman hustles down one of the sand hills during the Challenge Run Relay Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Thursday, the second part of the event, targeting an estimated 1,000 Junior Guards ages 9 to 17, will put their skills to the test in similar efforts. In addition to the local program participants, junior lifeguards from Stinson, Monterey and Half Moon Bay will travel to Santa Cruz.

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