Raised in Water

L.A. County’s Junior Lifeguards are strengthening their confidence—in and out of the water.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Jeff Berting

The ocean-facing windows at the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Center, located at the base of 26th Street and The Strand, boast quite a view. The sand is peppered with beach-goers, despite the brisk February temps. A handful of surfers donning wetsuits plunge in and out of the Pacific. It looks like a perfect day to get in the water.

As summer approaches, the Southern Cali beaches will become more and more saturated with locals enjoying the longer and warmer days and tourists soaking up the seascape that we, all too often, take for granted. But for those preparing for the first session of the Los Angeles Junior Lifeguard Program, the real fun begins on June 20.

“In some form or another, the program’s been around since 1908/1909,” says lifeguard captain Daniel Murphy. “During World War II they started using the Junior Lifeguard program to staff the towers while the 17- and 18-year-olds were off fighting. It was almost more of an apprentice program; it was filling a need.

The program that we see today really started in the ‘60s. Its been through a few evolutions since then, but the basic framework is the same: to teach the kids ocean safety, ocean knowledge and awareness, some lifesaving skills and then sport. Sport’s always been a part of it.”

Each one of the roughly 90 instructors—all L.A. County ocean lifeguards—has up to 30 kids. “Our biggest beaches will have a couple hundred kids on the sand,” Daniel notes. “Our smaller beaches will have 20 to 30.” All will be grouped together by age, ranging from 9 years old to 17.

“I was a Junior Guard for about eight years at Torrance Beach,” says Daniel, a South Bay native who has been a lifeguard captain for the past four years. He began lifeguarding at 21, but his introduction to the Junior Guard Program began at age 10.

“I was drawn to the ocean as much as any other kid in the South Bay—surfing and playing in the water,” he says. “But I just kind of fell into lifeguarding.”

After receiving recommendations from his high school swim coaches and more than a little nudge from his younger brother, Daniel took the steps necessary to begin his career as a lifeguard during college. Today Daniel and all three of his brothers are Los Angeles County ocean lifeguards.

Living in the Beach Cities, we’re all familiar with stories like this. Having one degree of separation from a lifeguard or Junior Guard is not uncommon; you many even have one living in your home. How many mornings have you seen a pack of teens sporting JG sweatshirts jogging along the beach?

“If you’re a kid and you’re initially afraid of the waves, and then after the program you’re out there swimming, that confidence resonates into everything else that you do. It’s a great stepping-stone. From what I see, it changes them.”

And while this sense of tradition passed on from family members and neighborhood mentors is paramount, so is increasing the program’s benefits to those not living along the coast. “The ocean has a great effect on kids,” Daniel points out. “It becomes a bit of a sanctuary. There’s plenty of research on ocean therapy and what it does to people. When we’re able to bring these kids from areas where they don’t get to see the beach all that often, it’s great for the head.”

For lifeguard captain Remy Smith, the positive effects the program has on L.A. County’s youth is something he’s seen firsthand as a father, as well as a recruiter. “My son [was a Junior Guard] for three years,” he notes. “Then he became a cadet, and it helped him get into college. Whenever he wrote papers, he would add what he did in Junior Guards and cadets.” Following in his father’s footsteps, Remy’s son, now 32, is a lifeguard today.

So what does a Junior Guard do? To Remy, a lot of what they’re learning is basic life skills. “Everyone should be at a certain swimming level,” he notes. They learn first aid and CPR, while working daily toward improving their endurance and strength—both in the water and on the sand.

Additionally there’s a strong sense of camaraderie that builds between the Junior Guards each summer. With more than 4,000 kids participating at locations sprawling from Avalon to Zuma, the program offers two summer sessions. Session one begins on June 20; session two begins on July 23.

Each session consists of either a morning or afternoon three-hour class, five days a week. That’s a lot of time spent working toward a common goal in an environment that requires overcoming physical hurdles while maintaining a sharp mental focus.

It’s what they’re learning in the program that transcends into other aspects of their lives, however, that Remy emphasizes most. “It’s about building confidence,” he says. “If you’re a kid and you’re initially afraid of the waves, and then after the program you’re out there swimming, that confidence resonates into everything else that you do. It’s a great stepping-stone. From what I see, it changes them.”

In an effort to expand the reach of the program, the Junior Guards have amped up their social media presence while maintaining their relationships with local pools. To reach kids who are further from the beach, “We have an AWARE program,” Remy says. “We go out to inner cities … we’re trying to get [the kids] aware of what the beach has to offer, and we’re giving them a taste of what it would be like to be a part of the program.”

He goes on to emphasize the importance of “just being there to pull them in and letting them know they can do it … to recognize these kids and give them that confidence.”

Giving someone the encouragement and extra push they need to achieve something they may have otherwise thought impossible is not new to Remy. One of the Junior Guards who participated with Remy’s son through the Venice program didn’t think he had what it took to be a lifeguard.

“[He] was an outstanding swimmer,” Remy explains, “an inner-city kid … this guy could easily pass a swim test, but mentally he didn’t think he could do it. I talked to him and actually brought him to the swim. He came in 19th out of [roughly] 400 people. He’s a quiet kid, but he became a great guard.”

With stories of kids overcoming the odds, breaking mental obstacles and developing a level of confidence that spills into other aspects of their lives, the Junior Guard program is inspiring to say the least. But it’s also just really fun.

For a little slice of summer, these kids spend nearly every day outside, on the beach, soaking up the sun (heavily saturated in SPF of course). Their iPads are out of reach; their phones are tucked away. They are off the grid for a few precious moments.

And that’s what they’ll remember: those few weeks during the summer when the only thing they had to do was be a kid.

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