Taming the Waves

The surf was high at Zuma Beach on the morning of Friday, July 1, but that didn’t stop a group of local children from navigating the waves for a junior lifeguard competition.

Nearly 150 local children ages nine to 17 come to Zuma on summer weekdays to learn lifesaving techniques, participate in physical activities and showcase their skills in competitions such as the one on Friday. 

The Zuma squad members are part of over 4,000 junior lifeguards in the LA County program, 3,000 of whom train at South Bay beach communities (Del Rey, Manhattan, El Segundo, Hermosa, Redondo and Torrance). The county’s large and dominant program accounts for about half of the approximately 8,000 junior lifeguards in the United States as a whole.

Junior Guards is designed to instruct youth in water safety, swimming, all ocean crafts (paddleboarding, surfing and more), body surfing, physical conditioning, competition skills, first aid, lifesaving, rescue techniques, CPR, and the use of professional lifesaving equipment.

“It is also a primary goal of the program to identify and train the next generation to be future lifeguards,” Zuma instructor Greg Bonann said. 

The program is divided into two sessions, the first running in June and July and the second running in August and September. The junior guards are broken into three age-based groups — “As” for ages 14-17, “Bs” for ages 12-13 and “Cs” for ages 9-11. 

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A typical day at Zuma consists of two three-hour long sessions which run from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Some children participate in both sessions, while some only participate in one due to the the exhausting nature of the activities. 

Each day begins with a dynamic warmup, and then the junior guards take to the waves for a physical activity in the water, with a heavy emphasis on swimming and ocean skills. The water activities are followed by a beach safety lecture and a rest period, where the children can eat a snack and hydrate. They are then educated on lifesaving procedures, including CPR, first aid and tower procedures. The day ends with a dry land activities, including long runs, run-swim-runs, beach flag sprints and games, or another water activity if the surf is good. 

Competitions, which occur frequently throughout each six-week session, help safely and effectively teach lifesaving techniques and procedures. Events include run-swim-runs, rescue can relays, paddle board races, mock-rescues, buoy swims, long runs and beach flags — an activity where participants sprint against each other to grab plastic flags out of the sand. 

“All of the events are geared to the the effective use and practice of the rescue process,” Bonann said.

Bonnan added that the big surf and strong rip currents made the swim events at Friday’s competition extremely challenging, but the majority of the junior guards were able to successfully navigate the powerful waves. 

“It was a fantastic opportunity for us instructors to see our kids in action in the big surf,” he said. “Zuma Junior Guards are exposed to some of the biggest surf in all of LA County and they make us proud by challenging themselves every day to learn how to safely and effectively get through the surf and to a potential victim — which is the heart and soul of a lifeguard’s job.”

LA County instructors train junior guards the same way as senior lifeguards, using the same equipment and competing in the same events. 

Junior guards from across LA County will come together to showcase their skills at a final on the last Friday of each session at Dockweiler State Beach. This session’s final competition will take place on Friday, July 29, at 9 a.m. at Dockweiler Youth Center in Playa Del Rey.

Bonann said there are a number of goals that instructors hope the children will take away from the program. 

“First, [we want them] to become safe in the water and on the beach and be able to be a safety asset to those around you,” he said. “Second, [we want them] to become knowledgeable in beach and ocean safety, lifesaving skills and competition; and third, we want them to have fun.”

Bonann, who has been an LA County Lifeguard for 47 years and is in his second year as an instructor, said that choosing to make junior lifeguards his number-one priority for six weeks every summer was the best decision he could have made. 

“My favorite part [of being an instructor] is to play a small role in the process as the kids learn new ocean skills, develop a healthy respect for the water and to help them become future lifeguards,” he said. 

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