The Little Mermaid of Manhattan Beach

It’s not easy to become a Junior Lifeguard. Just ask Kirra Troeger—the first teen in Los Angeles with Down syndrome to make the cut.

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    Michele Garber


Kirra Troeger is a typical American tween. She loves Justin Bieber, Disney’s Shake it Up and American Girl Dolls. Her bedroom is decorated in pastel shades of blue, lavender and pink and adorned with the art, photos and childhood mementos one expects to find in any 13-year-old girl’s digs.

Her nose is often buried in a mobile phone … much to her parent’s chagrin. And like many of her Generation Z peers, she participates in an endless array of activities ranging from Dolphin Swim Team, Girls on the Run, Friendship Circle and Girl Scouts to her proudest pursuit: being an LA County Junior Lifeguard (JG). What differentiates Kirra from her peers and makes all of her successes and endeavors more impressive is that she also happens to have Down syndrome.

Neither restrained nor defined by her condition, Kirra is completely fearless and fully embraces the infinite possibilities of her youth. Her mother, Kathy, calls it “Bravery Central.” Kirra is undeterred by any obstacles that having Down syndrome may present. She is resolute and audacious in all her pursuits.

As the youngest of three, Kirra’s interests are naturally influenced by the achievements of her two older sisters. After her eldest sister, Montana, became a cheerleader, Kirra decided to do the same and recently made the squad at Manhattan Beach Middle School.

Both of Kirra’s sisters are swimmers and were Junior Lifeguards. Her middle sister, Saralyn, went on to become a Cadet Lifeguard and plays water polo at Mira Costa. Kirra’s dad, Steve, was also a JG, then became an LA County Lifeguard and ultimately served as captain of Baywatch Avalon. The desire to be a Junior Lifeguard was in Kirra’s genes, though her path to becoming one was not automatic.

To become a Junior Lifeguard requires tremendous courage, strength and athleticism. Each year thousands of kids ages 9 to 17 from all over LA County gather for tryouts at local pools to become JGs. They are expected to demonstrate stamina, confidence and safety awareness in the ocean.

The qualifying test is fittingly rigorous and involves two main parts. First, prospective JGs must complete a 7-foot dive into a pool and retrieve a weighted ring. Next they must complete a 100-yard swim within a specific window of time based on their age group. Passing the tests requires above-average swimming and athletic ability, and not all those who try out ultimately succeed.

Last year approximately 2,500 tried out and about 2,000 passed. By any measure, simply qualifying to be a JG is a great achievement. For those with Down syndrome, with its common physical trait of low muscle tone, it is an even greater challenge to become a JG.

But Kirra is anything but typical. She defied the odds and became the first teen with Down syndrome to become an LA County Junior Lifeguard.

Unlike many individuals with Down syndrome, Kirra is built like an athlete. She has a compact muscular frame and is extremely quick and limber. She proudly demonstrates her ability to easily do side splits as well as front splits with either leg forward. Participating in a variety of sports, from swimming, diving and running to doing aerial arts at Fly Studios, prepared her well for the JG tests.






Unfortunately, the morning of her tryout Kirra had the flu. Once recovered she was back at the pool and wholeheartedly swam the compulsory 100 yards, only to fall short by a mere five seconds. The lifeguard administering the test told her she swam fast enough but her turns were slow.

Undeterred, she headed to Begg Pool where she swims with the Dolphins Swim Team and repeatedly practiced those turns. A week later she was back at tryouts, and this time she shaved 10 seconds off her time—completing her 100-yard swim with five seconds to spare. Kirra beams with pride as she recounts the moment when she saw the lifeguard smile and knew she had qualified.

For Kirra, becoming a Junior Lifeguard was more than simply following in her family’s flip-flop-clad footsteps. It was a manifestation of her deep-rooted love of the ocean.

The Troeger family lived on Catalina Island until Kirra was 6 and then moved to El Porto, just a stone’s throw from the Manhattan Beach Strand. Hailing from a family of sea-lovers and living in such close proximity to two of LA County’s most revered beaches, a deep affection for all things ocean was fostered in Kirra. She’s been swimming, body-boarding and snorkeling since she was a small child, and she’s completely at ease on the family sailboat, TriggerfishV.

As her mom Kathy recalls, “Kirra has always been fearless when it comes to being in the ocean. She even loves cliff diving. I have one fierce little person who’s even braver than I am.”

By any measure, simply qualifying to be a JG is a great achievement. For those with Down syndrome, with its common physical trait of low muscle tone, it is an even greater challenge to become a JG.

Kirra is so comfortable in water that she jokes with a wistful twinkle in her eye of secretly being a mermaid. She even has her own iridescent, fuchsia mermaid tail, which she occasionally wears while swimming.

Though she may secretly wish she was Ariel, Kirra is thrilled to be an actual Junior Lifeguard. Once she became a JG, she was assigned a beach and session and completed the five-week JG course of swimming, water safety, body surfing, surfing and physical conditioning, along with training to use professional rescue equipment and learning basic rescue techniques including CPR.

Kirra also learned the core values of the LA County Fire Department: integrity, teamwork, commitment, courage, caring and community. After successfully completing her session, she was given a certificate and patch, which she proudly shows off along with her official JG swimsuit.

Kirra is eagerly preparing for the 2016 JG session. Last year she was assigned to El Segundo. This year she’s assigned a little closer to home in Manhattan Beach, and she can’t wait for summer.