Can you imagine spending most of your summer time at the beach, and having your parents approve of it?
They like it so much, in fact, that they’ll drop you off and pick you up five days a week and even buy you a new swimsuit to wear while you’re there.
Youth in Huntington Beach, California, have just that kind of luck. But their parents are not taking them to the beach Monday through Friday so they can slather on suntan oil and lazily soak up the rays. These kids are undergoing staggering workouts, not unlike army drills, as they train in the Junior Lifeguard program.
Go down to Huntington City Beach almost any day of the week, and you’ll see hundreds of youth, dressed in red swimsuits, all in formation. Above the crashing of the waves, the crying of the gulls, children laughing, and cassette players blaring music, you’ll hear some very unbeachlike noises.
“What’s next?” a man’s voice roars.
Hundreds of bodies are suddenly face down in the sand, muscles straining and sweat pouring as they work to complete the battery of exercises that will condition them to stay in the junior guard program.
The program, of course, is not all calisthenics. When they finish their exercises, they’ll get to go for timed two-mile runs in the sand and swim around the Huntington Beach pier a couple of times. Not to mention the sprints, relays, pier dives and a host of other grueling activities. At times they’re asked to jump off the backs of speeding boats.
And they don’t even get to enjoy looking like glamorous lifeguards, since they are required to wear various colored beanies to distinguish them from the other swimmers at the beach.
So why do they put themselves through this torture?
“It’s fun!” says David Garrick, 12, of the Huntington Beach Sixth Ward, Huntington Beach North Stake. “Besides, I’m gaining muscles and a tan,” he laughs.
“It gives me something to do in the summer, so I don’t just sit around the house and eat,” says Cambria Hunter, 14, of the same ward.
“It gives us a chance to swim in the ocean,” agree 12-year-olds Jenny Allen and Rachell Ewell. “We love to play in the waves.”
It also gives the youth a chance to provide an essential service to the community. In a city where life revolves around the beach, it’s important to have responsible people around who can lend a hand in case of an emergency. Some of the kids in the junior guard program donate several hours a week helping patrol the beach.
“The program itself is regimented,” says Coach Mike Eich. “What it does is develop discipline within the kids in hopes that they will earn respect for having gone through a tough program. The whole system is designed to teach them safety in the water, to allow them to have a fun experience on the beach, and to develop good discipline.”
For Paul Allen and Jeanine Bryan, the Junior Life Guard program is even more than that. It’s a ticket to Australia, where they’ll participate in junior guard competition with the teams down under.
Paul and Jeanine are members of the elite “Captains,” the highest level in the junior guard program, which is divided into groups based on age and ability. The top members of the program were chosen, based on their athletic ability and citizenship, to make up the Junior Guard Educational Exchange—the 16-member group traveling to Australia.
To be Captains, Jeanine and Paul had to be at least 14 years old; be certified by the Red Cross in standard first aid, CPR, and personal safety; swim around the pier, battling waves and currents, in less than 15 minutes; be able to complete a two-mile beach run in under 15 minutes; and swim a mile in less than 30 minutes, to name a few of the requirements.
There are no exceptions made for Jeanine because she is a female. She must meet the same demands as Paul.
For Paul, the junior guard program could also provide a way to finance his mission. If he is good enough, he can work as a lifeguard during the summer after he turns 17. He’s planning to put the money he makes in a mission fund.
Of course, the youth in the junior guard program don’t spend all their time conditioning. Sometimes they listen to lectures on lifesaving techniques, and they receive complete training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid. Then there are the games, which include relays, tugs-of-war, water tag, Red Rover, and many more.
They also learn about the tides, waves, and basic beach training. “My kids are safer at the beach than I am,” says Caroline Allen, who has two sons and a daughter in the program. “They really know what to do. They can stand out on the shore, watch the waves, and say ‘Look Mom, there’s a riptide out there.’”
They learn from practical experience once they become Captains. They spend two hours, every other day, assisting the full-time lifeguards in the tower. “If a lifeguard goes out on a rescue, we’re supposed to go out there with him,” says Paul, who says he’s used prayer more than once to help him battle the waves.
Gospel teachings, in fact, have helped many of the LDS youth involved in junior guards. In order to be selected for the Australia trip, Paul and Jeanine had to go through a series of interviews, and their Church interview experience was a great asset, they said.
Paul, who earned his Eagle Scout Award two summers ago, says that the leadership training he received at Church has helped him too. He talks about the time when the Captains were in charge of doing the cooking for a hot-dog roast held for the junior guards and their families. The Captains were responsible for feeding about 7,000 people in all. “My Church experience really helped me to work with people and helped me know how to suggest to people what to do and when to do it,” he said.
Likewise, the junior guard program has been known to help the youth with their Church work. Just ask Bruce Johnston, of the Fountain Valley First Ward, Huntington Beach Stake. Bruce was involved in the junior guard program and later served in the Italy Catania Mission. He is now a junior guard instructor. “The program helped me with my mission preparation because it was very discipline oriented, just like the mission field. It stressed the importance of obeying rules.”
“It also gives you a sense of self-confidence, by helping you know that you can accomplish something that’s really hard for you,” said Jeanine.
One of the hardest things the Captains accomplished last summer was a 24-mile run, swim, run. They started by scrambling over the rocks and through the tide pools of Laguna Beach, dived into the ocean and swam across a cove, then ran to the Newport Jetty and crossed it together so they’d be highly visible to the boats that also cross. On the other side of the jetty, they ran to the Balboa Pier and swam around it. Then they hustled over the sand to the Newport pier, where they swam out to a buoy, rather than around the pier. There are so many fishermen casting lines off the Newport Pier that the swimmers would be sure to get tangled in them. From then on, it was a clean break across the beach to home territory. Once they hit Huntington Beach they swam around the pier, and the marathon was over.
Paul finished about a half hour ahead of everyone else, possibly thanks to his workouts with the Marina High swim team, where he was voted most valuable swimmer as a junior. Or maybe it was his experience on the cross-country team that helped.
But, he adds, following the Word of Wisdom doesn’t hurt either. “Since I don’t drink or smoke, I feel clean,” he says. “I don’t have bad lungs, so I can keep running and swimming and be in good shape.”
On almost every coast in the country, LDS youth are staying in good shape via similar lifeguard programs, and there’s even a program based at a lake in Idaho. On occasion, the groups come together for competition.
That’s another point the kids like about the program. “You get to meet all sorts of people and make new friends,” says Alison Brown, 14, of the Huntington Beach Sixth Ward, Huntington Beach North Stake.
Each swimmer probably has a different reason for joining, but they all come out with one thing in common, according to Coach Eich. “Respect is the key word,” he says. “We try to teach them respect for the ocean, respect for the environment, and respect for themselves.”
All that, plus sand, surf, and sun? Not only are these kids spending their long summer hours learning how to save lives, but they’re saving a summerful of memories as well.