A for Athlete

Sink or Swim[]

As the economy hits rough waters, competition is surging for beach lifeguard jobs. Three rookies join the race for a role in a real-life 'Baywatch.'[]

By Ellen Gamerman, June 6, 2008
Manhattan Beach, Calif.

After the first run on the first day of Los Angeles County's lifeguard-training academy, a rookie throws up, walks off the beach and quits.

None of the other recruits turn to look. L.A. lifeguard training is run with military discipline, and one rule is, always face the water. The class stands frozen in squad formation. No one wants to risk his or her chances just to watch a defeated rookie slink away.

Lifeguarding is one of the most coveted summer jobs in southern California. Pono Barnes, an 18-year-old surfer, describes what it was like to train for his dream job.

This will be a tough summer to land any good job, and for lifeguards, the competition is especially fierce. In South Walton, on the Florida Panhandle, lifeguard applications have risen 30% in the past year, boosted by older recruits with military and law-enforcement experience. In Volusia County, Florida, there were 60 openings this year compared with 80 last year, in part because college graduates are returning to their old summer posts after striking out in the bleak job market. "The economy is not as good as it once was, and that's helping us recruit," says Kevin Sweat, the county director of beach safety.

Lifeguarding is no longer a summer pastime for bored teens. Pay and benefits have grown as more cities merge their lifeguards into the fire department. L.A. County employs 180 full-time and 760 part-time lifeguards, with top pay pushing six figures.

The lifeguards who watch over 31 miles of sandy beaches that ring Santa Monica Bay are among the nation's best paid and most famous. They inspired "Baywatch," the TV show that exported Southern California beach life to an estimated one billion viewers world-wide. If there is an endless summer, it's here, replenished by successive generations of surfers and swimmers.

Los Angeles County lifeguard rookies Savannah Bettis, "Pono" Barnes and Pat Cary.

Most of the recruits consider this the best summer job in America. They're athletes who have grown up logging long hours in pools and the ocean. Of 200 who tried out last fall, only about 50 will pass rookie school and get jobs. At the end of the first day of training, the rookies are exhausted. An instructor asks, "Did we have fun? Are your fun buckets full?" Nobody answers.

The rookies assemble at lifeguard tower 26, and Kealiinohopono "Pono" Barnes takes a spot in front. He works at a surf shop and a surfboard factory, and he seldom wears shoes, even when he drives. Mornings on the way to work, he detours off Pacific Coast Highway to check the waves. He has a surfer's understanding of the ocean. During tryouts last fall, he spotted a strong current and used it to pull himself north to the finish. "I swam smarter rather than harder," he says.

Mr. Barnes is taking a semester off from Los Angeles Harbor College to train. He lives with his mother and stepfather in Redondo Beach and sleeps under a poster of a beach babe. Surfboards line one wall. He's teaching himself the ukulele. Mr. Barnes, whose father is part-Hawaiian, tells people his first name means "chief sitting in righteousness." Online, he uses the screen name "Dudester." Mr. Barnes was on the surf team at Redondo Union High School until he graduated last year, and he is still more a surfer than swimmer. He trained by churning out 2,500 yards in a pool twice a week. During a recent workout he rested a hand on the pool tiles, trying to work up enthusiasm for another lap. "It's so boring," he said. He'd rather ride his longboard.

Mr. Barnes's mother left Hermosa Beach for Hawaii at age 17. She married and had two kids on the Big Island, then moved back to Southern California. As a boy, Mr. Barnes heard stories about his grandfather, a surfer and outrigger-canoe racer who hung out at Waikiki beach into old age.

Recruits line up on Manhattan Beach for training.

Three years ago, Mr. Barnes joined Junior Lifeguards, a county-run youth swimming and ocean safety program. There he became friends with Savannah Bettis, another lifeguard rookie and a year behind Mr. Barnes at Redondo High. "She was one of the smart kids," he says. They started running together at the beach earlier this year, toughening their feet on the sand, and swimming in early-spring temperatures without wet suits. Mr. Barnes got a crew cut, ditching his shoulder-length shag to meet training-academy grooming standards.

Lifeguarding, which starts at $20.69 an hour, would buy him time before he leaves home. His stepfather, a manager at a Porsche dealership, tells him to find a job he loves. He sees Mr. Barnes working as a lifeguard and professional surfer. His mother thinks he could be a famous ukulele musician and start his own line of surfboards.

Mr. Barnes is drawn to the idea of rescuing people. He's gotten sucked under the water plenty while surfing. "You start thinking, 'Oh my God, I could drown right now,' " he says. But he's also daunted by pressure. He was a soccer goalie for seven years and quit the day a parent criticized him from the sidelines. Lately, he's been thinking about the stakes in lifeguard work. As a lifeguard, "if you show up late and somebody drowned," he says, "this family's going home with a dead person."

On the first day of lifeguard training, 23-year-old Pat Cary is first in the water, first out. The rookies gossip over his chances at the Olympics. He looks the role: blonde, lean and 6 feet 2 inches tall.

This year, Mr. Cary has been living on $800 a month from his parents and training six days a week at the University of Southern California. Beijing is a long shot. There are two slots on the U.S. team for his event, the 200-meter butterfly, and one is expected to go to Michael Phelps, who won six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics. Lifeguarding is Mr. Cary's concession to a subject he avoids: failing to make the Olympic team. Win or lose, this fall he'll need a job. "It's kind of scary," he says.

Mr. Cary, who gave up five weekends for the rookie training academy, hopes a lifeguard position will lead to a job as a firefighter. He acknowledges that the transition from Olympic hopeful to civil servant may be tough. "I'm not looking forward to it because I'm loving what I'm doing now," he says. "When the time comes, I'm sure I'll embrace it."

Mr. Cary, an Olympic hopeful, works out, left, at the gym.

Mr. Cary learned to swim with his older brother, Matt, at the country-club pool in Coto de Caza, a gated Orange County community. Pat Cary always tried to catch up to his brother, who is 23 months older. He refused training wheels on his new bike because his big brother didn't use them. As a young swimmer, he dove off the blocks against other 6-year-olds. "They'd all look like birds falling out of their nests," says his mother, Vicky Cary, a swim coach. By first grade, he was setting club records. When he was seven, Mr. Cary accidentally swam a race using the more difficult butterfly instead of freestyle. He finished first.

By the end of elementary school, his older brother got bored and quit swimming, Mr. Cary says, leaving him alone in the pool. His mother says Mr. Cary had the discipline to "paint the black line," slang for following the line on the pool floor, lap after lap.

Mr. Cary's attention strayed during his senior year at Capistrano Valley High School. He'd talk his way out of swim practice and go to Trestles, a surf spot south of Orange County. Jeremy Kipp, then a swim coach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Mr. Cary a "Southern California special," a surfer who swam and played water polo but didn't work too hard.

During his freshman year on the UCSB swim team, Mr. Cary relied on his talent. In the summer he returned to his old job as a beach lifeguard in San Clemente and put on 10 pounds. His nickname changed from "Dreamboat" to "Creamboat." That fall, Mr. Kipp told him if he gave up surfing and lifeguarding, he could turn himself into a world-class swimmer. Mr. Cary believed him. "I saw my potential," he says.

That year, he qualified for the 2008 Olympic trials, still three years away. But the rigorous training took its toll. By senior year, his back hurt. He'd predicted he'd set a record at the NCAA championships, but he struggled to get out of the pool after the first race. He finished eighth in the finals. Later, doctors told him he had a stress fracture in two vertebrae and ordered him to stay out of the pool for at least five months. The orders would have kept him out of the 2007 Pan American Games that summer. Instead, he got back in the pool after three weeks and finished sixth at the games.

His mother says Mr. Cary used to see life in black-and-white terms. But lately, as her son looks ahead, she says, "he understands there's a real gray area to life, too." His girlfriend, Rosslyn Roberson, looks forward to having him home more. They'll ride bikes, make multicolored "Funfetti" cake from a box, his favorite, and fix his mother's guacamole, she says. She sees rookie school as an investment in their future.

Ms. Bettis, an L.A. County lifeguard rookie, performs sit-ups at the beach.

The sun was setting when Savannah Bettis arrived home after the first day of training. Her parents had spaghetti cooking. Ms. Bettis flopped in the family room, still in her wet bathing suit. She described Mr. Cary. "He was so intense," she said. "He's got one of those fat water bottles and he's like, 'Grrrrr!' "

Short and muscular, she used her powerful butterfly stroke to get past the surf line during rescue exercises. Her swim coach, Mark Rubke, says by Southern California standards, she's not a top racer. But he calls her "a textbook case of personal improvement through hard work." Ms. Bettis finished 79th among the first 110 swimmers in lifeguard tryouts last September, five slots ahead of Mr. Barnes.

Ms. Bettis has been training since the summer before sixth grade. That year her father said she could go to the beach alone if she joined Junior Lifeguards. She learned rescue drills, jumping off moving boats and the Hermosa pier. When Ms. Bettis was 13, her father challenged her to the annual swim between the Hermosa and Manhattan piers. He finished ahead of her in the nearly two-mile race. Two years later, she beat him.

Ms. Bettis, 18, isn't planning on a lifeguard career. She fit her training around studies for her advanced-placement exams. She is entering the University of Idaho this fall and hopes to become a physical therapist. Some days she toys with the idea of working as a ski instructor in winter and a lifeguard in summer. "That's sort of a fantasy," she says.

In a training race the first day, the rookies ran a quarter mile in the sand, swam 550 yards and then returned to the beach to run another quarter mile. Most of the male recruits passed Ms. Bettis during the first leg. She caught up in the water, swimming freestyle in an explosive burst. She was the first woman to the finish line.

Britt Bettis had dragged a chair to the beach, hoping to see his daughter train. That night, he asked her how she fared in the day's race. Mr. Barnes and another friend beat her, Ms. Bettis said. "Yeah, but they're boys," her father said. He reminded her of her goal: "The ultimate prize is the orange can," he said, referring to the lifeguards' trademark rescue buoy. "It's not the can," she said. "It's the red shorts."

Five weeks later, on the last day of training, the lifeguard instructors congratulated the successful graduates. "A lot of people want to be you," one told the group.

That evening, a dozen of the new lifeguards celebrated at Pancho's, a Mexican restaurant. Mr. Cary savored a Dos Equis beer and then left for a swim meet in Irvine, where he finished third. Ms. Bettis, after changing out of her new red shorts, shared a plate of chicken tacos and left to dance to reggae with friends. Mr. Barnes ate a burrito, headed home and fell asleep. The next morning, he went surfing early, and then made it, on time, to his first shift as a lifeguard.