At the peak of summer, the Los Angeles County Fire Department is staffed with nearly 600 full- and part-time lifeguards. Some of these guards work year-round and hold titles such as captain and specialist. Others have full-time jobs outside of saving lives on the coast and dedicate themselves part-time during the summer to help us stay safe. But all must maintain certification in order to be rehired or keep their positions. The job of a lifeguard demands that everyone on staff is in great shape physically. Battling waves, rip currents and other elements to save lives isn't for the weak or faint of heart.
In this issue, the "healthiest people I know" are Ann Finley, Margaret Cook and Chris Linkletter. All three hold positions within the lifeguarding ranks of LA County, and they join together as teammates for the National Lifeguard Competition each year.
"As lifeguards, we pride ourselves on staying in shape for our job," says Linkletter. Pride, combined with working together every day, naturally lends itself to a spirit of camaraderie and team competition. Events at the national competition replicate the work done by guards on the job, and LA County lifeguards have placed first for the last 25 years at the national championships. The Masters division, for which all three of these women compete, is composed of men and women over the age of 40 and helps keep LA County on top year after year.
What initially sparked your interest in lifeguarding?
Chris Linkletter, Captain Ocean Lifeguard, LA County Fire Department (CL): I've been a swimmer all my life. I moved here in 1978 and participated in the LA County Junior Lifeguard Program. This sparked my love for the ocean and my interest in lifeguarding. I took the lifeguard test with a bunch of friends when I turned 18 and qualified for the training academy. After graduating from UCLA, I took the Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Exam (permanent lifeguard job) and was hired full-time in 1990. I was promoted to captain in 1998.
Ann Finley, electrical engineer and Ocean Lifeguard Recurrent in spring, summer and fall (AF): One could say lifeguarding was in my blood. My parents grew up along the lakes in Madison, Wisconsin. My father was a summer lifeguard and teacher during the school year, and my mother worked concessions at the city beaches while going to nursing school. My brothers and I swam competitively in college and lifeguarded the city lake beaches during the summers. After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a job in LA and began seriously racing ocean swim races and triathlons. Since I had horrible eyes, I couldn't pass the lifeguard eye exam. Many of my lifeguard friends told me to get my eyes corrected and try out. Then in the year 2000, I had Lasik eye surgery and became a lifeguard the following year at age 39, making me the oldest female rookie to date!
Margaret Cook, DC, and Ocean Lifeguard Specialist (MC): My interest in lifeguarding sparked from the combination of love for the ocean and helping people.
How did a career in lifeguarding turn into a desire to compete in the National Lifeguard Competition?
AF: I always enjoyed competitions, and several of my swim teammates and lifeguard friends encouraged me to join the LA County Lifeguard Association's national team. They said those of us in the Masters division can add a tremendous amount of points to the team scoring.
MC: I saw co-workers who stayed in excellent shape regardless of age. It was so inspiring, I decided to join. That was in 1999, and I have continued since, only missing one year.
CL: It's just natural to want to compete against the nation's other lifeguards! We had to compete to get the job, and we have to stay in great physical condition to do the job.
What is the United States Lifesaving National Championship like?
CL: The championship includes team events (two to four people), relays, partner events and individual events. It's a tough three days of competing. It can be exhausting, but we do it for the love of the "sport" and the pride of being national champions.
What is the atmosphere like at these competitions?
AF: Imagine hundreds of fit, sleek swimmers, paddlers and runners all sharing their passion for ocean sports! The competitions are great events to share our lifesaving experiences and love of the surf lifesaving sport with our lifeguard sisters and brothers across the nation/world.
Ann Finley, electrical engineer and Ocean Lifeguard Recurrent in spring, summer and fall, training by the Pier in Hermosa Beach
What is your training regimen like as a lifeguard and for competition?
MC: I surf, swim, paddle and row for workouts. I did the Rock-to-Rock paddle from Catalina to Cabrillo Beach (22 miles), and I have rowed the channel with a partner. To stay healthy, I have a balance in life with various workouts that include stretching and recovery time. It is important to me to have passion and to enjoy my workout experience. My diet includes fresh fruit and veggies, moderate protein and few processed foods. As competitions approach, my workout becomes more specific to what I am focusing on in competition. I also use positive visualization of my future races and have a maintenance routine of deep tissue massage and chiropractic adjustments.
CL: I swim at least three days a week in the pool and add in ocean swims (more when the water is warmer!) I run, bike, paddle, surf, surf-ski, row, lift weights and practice surf entry. For competitions, I add in more paddling, surf skiing, ocean swimming and beach running. I maintain a healthy diet all year but carb load a few days before and during competitions. Eating right and staying hydrated is especially important during nationals. It is four days long for eight to 12 hours a day. We went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina a few years ago, and it was 100 degrees with very high humidity on the beach-something we are not used to in California.
AF: I work out daily. I have Masters swim practice three days a week, and I also do Pilates, yoga, sand running, paddling, surf ski, biking and more. I run from Hermosa Pier to Manhattan Pier in the dry sand and do calisthenics at each lifeguard tower. When it gets closer to competitions, I concentrate on team ocean and beach workouts with higher intensity and include more sprinting for the shorter lifeguard sprint style races versus pier-to-pier swim endurance events. I also perform repeat "ins and outs": it starts by sprinting from the lifeguard tower in the sand, then I dolphin through the surf and swim to the end of the pier and back. I try to eat healthier during competition season and limit those items that will do harm to a girly figure, i.e., avoiding bread and desserts!
How have you stayed healthy and injury-free through the years you have been competing and training to stay in top gear as a lifeguard?
CL: I've had a few injuries throughout my 27-year career. As we get older, the body isn't made to get up, run at top speed and sprint into the water at any moment. We have to be physically fit to avoid injuries and pay attention to the ocean conditions and hazards along the way that change every day!
AF: Once I hit 40 years old, injuries started to occur. My awareness and cautiousness levels are much higher than in the past to avoid risk and injury. I have had to rely heavily on stretching, yoga, Pilates and lightweight or stretch cord conditioning.
What's your favorite spot in the South Bay to get in a great workout?
CL: This is a tough question because the South Bay has so many places. I enjoy any beach to surf, swim, paddle, bodysurf, run, etc. I also enjoy riding my bike around Palos Verdes Peninsula and running along Paseo Del Mar in San Pedro, where I live. I enjoy swimming with the Masters swimmers on the ZAP (Rancho Palos Verdes) and LAPS (Torrance) teams.
MC: My favorite place to work out is Torrance Beach, and my favorite place to relax is White Point Preserve in Palos Verdes, which is close to my home. Part of my workout experience is the beauty of being outdoors with nature, especially at the beach.
Those who represent LA County at the National Lifeguard Championships do not have to qualify to participate. However, they do use their personal vacation days to travel, compete and represent our hometowns. Locally, they hold events about once a month in the spring and summer, with the regional championships at the end of July to tune up for nationals in August.