Beach Competition

68 Lifeguards From State Parks Vie In Games That Test Job Skills, Too

August 06, 2009|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Lifeguards, it turns out, really can swim. For the record, they can also run, scramble in the sand under a plastic net, toss a life ring with some accuracy and sprint while dragging a canoe.

While their work at the state's parks mostly involves sitting on watch in a tall chair, that particular activity was not included in the Maryland Park Service Lifeguard Competition at Gunpowder Falls State Park on Wednesday. Sixty-eight lifeguards gathered at the Hammerman Beach area to show their athleticism if not their key job skills, which tend to involve surveillance and the ability to remain focused for stretches of time during which very little of note is happening.

The work is funny that way, and so is the typical lifeguard profile, says Christina McCullough, beach manager at Gunpowder Falls.

"You have to find people who are able to do the rescue, but sit" for long periods, she said.

The lifeguards who showed up Wednesday - 57 young men in red lifeguard trunks and 11 women in red two-piece gear - did not appear to spend much time sitting, as they went through the paces of six events over the course of about four hours while showing off their enviable body mass indexes.

The lifeguards represented five of the 11 state parks where lifeguards work and roughly half of the lifeguards who work for the state. There was no cash incentive involved; the individual and park team winners were awarded token T-shirts.

"This is about pride," said Matt Petro, 23, a recent business graduate of Mountain State University in West Virginia who is in his second year as a lifeguard at Greenbrier State Park in Boonsboro. His park won the day last year, and "we want to defend our title," he said.

Petro skipped the first two events - the 1.2-mile run and the 500-yard swim - saving his energy for the beach flags run and grab, the obstacle course, the run-swim-paddle relay and the tug-o-war.

"You get lifeguards together, they're incredibly competitive," said Lt. David W. Rogers, a training officer with the Maryland Park Service. He said the competition is in about its 15th year as an organized event, but lifeguards were challenging each other to informal meets at least as far back as the 1960s.

Working for between about $8 and $12 an hour, lifeguards work eight-hour shifts, starting most days with an hour of training in running, swimming, push-ups and pull-ups. Then into the chair, where they sit 6 to 8 feet off the ground on watch, usually for an hour before a break that might last 30 minutes, then back on duty.

"The hardest thing is you just have to stay alert," said Matt Connolly, a lifeguard at Sandy Point State Park and a rising senior in business management at James Madison University. "It seems easy and it's not necessarily physically demanding," but it can be tiring to stay focused on the water, keeping track of who is where and who seems to be having trouble.

Training for the competition paid off for the team from Sandy Point State Park, which placed first in points for the day's events. After a meal and the T-shirt awarding ceremony, the lifeguards, fresh from a vigorous workout, would return to their posts the next morning, watching, watching, watching.

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