Lifeguard Competition: Racing Beyond the Pool

Photo Courtesy: Friends of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue

By Alex Labonge, Swimming World College Intern

Swimming races regulated by USA Swimming and FINA follow a very specific and concrete set of rules.  There is very little flexibility and every race holds the same basic pieces: climbing onto starting blocks, a dive, a few turns, and a finish on a wall.  Some swimmers wish to use their athletic talents in ways outside of the pool, while still competing in an aquatic environment.

Swimmers: meet lifeguard competition.

The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) hosts a slew of competitions around the country for ocean lifeguards of all ages.  There are over 100 chapters in the USLA that are divided into eight regions.  The events range from open water swimming, to running, to rescues, to paddling, and relays.  Time doesn’t matter in these races, it is strictly about beating out the fellow competitors.

These events are designed to test the athletes and push them to their physical and mental limits. There is the added element of swimming in the ocean, which is usually not as calm and predictable as your neighborhood swimming pool.


Photo Courtesy: Friends of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue

These events give swimmers especially a chance to break out of the mold of standard competition and compete in events where they must run into the water at full-speed, as well as learn to manipulate waves, troughs, rip currents, and many other obstacles.  There is a physical aspect to these races that simply cannot be found in a pool.  These races also allow the ocean rescue guards to fine-tune their lifesaving skills and be able to react in stressful work environments.

“It is a lot different than staring at a black line,” said Sawyer Dove, rising senior swimmer at UNC-Wilmington and second-year guard at Wrightsville Beach. “With the ocean you can have any kind of condition.  The tides and sand bars are constantly changing and every race and event is unique.  Being able to manage all of the unpredictability of competition in the ocean makes focusing on a pool race much easier.”


Photo Courtesy: Friends of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue

Individuals and relay teams score points for their respective beaches, which are divided into two categories, big beach and small beach, based on the number of guards they employ.  These lifeguard competitions are a great way for swimmers to compete after their college careers come to an end.  Participants in the events have no age limit, with special groups set up for the older competitors.

College swimming programs such as UNC-Wilmington encourage their swimmers to work and compete as beach lifeguards during the summer.  The cross-training the swimmers receive helps them return to school in great shape in all areas of their training, not just in the pool.

“It is really cool being able to compete events where I can race while wearing giant rescue fins,” said first year guard and UNC-Wilmington swimmer Will Swiss.  “It is something different that we can’t do in the pool in the swimming world.”


Photo Courtesy: Friends of Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue

Wrightsville Beach won the Big Beach classification of the Southeast Regional Lifeguard Competition this past week in Carolina Beach, N.C.  Their team is full of former and current college swimming and track athletes.

The next lifeguard competition will be the 2015 Nautica USLA Lifeguarding Championships held in Daytona Beach, Fla., on August 5-8.  If you are in the area, be sure to check out this fierce competition, and look for it on television on a later date.

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Lisa Dove
Lisa Dove
8 years ago

Great article, Alex. Including you, is it possible to name all of the alums and current swimmers for UNCW that are on the WBOR winning squad?

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