Lifeguards. For years, pop culture stereotypes would have you believe that their entire existence revolved around applying just the right amount of sunblock to their noses, flirting with bikini-clad blondes on the beach and blowing the occasional whistle at a swimmer whose raft floated a bit beyond the designated swimming area.
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But the truth is, to become a successful ocean lifeguard takes an incredible amount of physical ability. Swimming in the ocean is no easy task, but doing so while rescuing folks from drowning takes a multitude of skills few individuals possess. Those that do man the raised chairs you see up and down the coast of the Jersey Shore and beyond.
But out of these lifeguards, whose skills are above the others?
That’s the question the annual Red Bull Surf + Rescue competition aims to answer when it comes to Bugalow Beach in Atlantic City 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 17.
For those unfamiliar with the event, it consists of 50 four-member teams of lifeguards from the East Coast competing head to head in a series of swimming, sprinting, paddling and rescue-based events. The teams come from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to battle it out on the sands of America’s Playground. Each team must have at least one female on it.
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“You have to have a solid team all around,” says Max Mittelman, a lifeguard for the town of Longport, whose team has won the event for the last two years. Mittelman hopes to repeat for a third year, but is keenly aware that winning doesn’t just happen by accident.
“You can’t just have one or two good guys on the team. You need four people who are all able to have their own job or position and do it well. You need to have a solid squad with everyone contributing.”
But even with a great team, the competition can be tough.
“You are battling. There can be up to 50 people in the water at one time and you have to know the ocean and be comfortable in it in order to position yourself to succeed,” Mittelman notes. “But the hardest aspect of this race is how much conditioning it requires. It’s a four- event race, so you are racing four times in row with only about a 10-minute break in between.”
For Mittelman, becoming a lifeguard was a natural thing.
“I grew up in the ocean!” he says. “I still surf all the time and as a kid I went to the beach every single day. It’s who I am. I’ve been a lifeguard for 14 years.”
While being a strong ocean swimmer is definitely a requirement for success at Red Bull Surf + Rescue, a lot of the action takes place on the sand too, in the form of foot races and other run-based challenges. Luckily for Mittelman, that is an area he has plenty of experience in too.
“I ran track in college and I still run to this day. Anything involving running I am very confident in,” he says. “In this competition its only a 400-meter run. That’s definitely my specialty.”
What really keeps Mittelman and the other lifeguards on their toes is the fact that each year new elements are added into the competition while others are taken away. In prior years lifeguard boats played a large part in the competition. This year they have been eliminated, but a paddleboard rescue event has been added in their place, which offers its own set of challenges.
“They added a paddleboard pick up where one person swims out to a flag and the other has to go out and pick them up. So that means you have to put two people on a paddleboard which is not really meant for two people,” Mittelman notes.
Despite the varying challenges and the intensity of the competition, in the end, coming out on top at the Red Bull Surf + Rescue seems to revolve around teamwork.
“What makes a great team is having a bunch of people who train together and work together and aren’t afraid to go after it and win,” Mittelman says with confidence.
“It’s all about battling the other teams … and battling the ocean.”