Visitors to Dewey Beach will see the town's lifeguards on patrol beginning Friday, May 23. What they won't see is the nearly two months of hard work the group has put into getting ready for the 2014 summer season.
That work started with the first of three two-hour-long tryout sessions on March 30.
It was a wet and windy day, one of those early spring days when it's well above freezing, but the wind cuts straight to the bone. Eight brave souls showed up for the test.
A couple of days before the tryout, Dewey Beach Patrol Capt. Todd Fritchman said the first day of tryouts is usually the slowest. He was pleased with the turnout, and it was clear he was happy to be on the beach despite the weather.
“Oh yeah, I'm out here everyday. This is better than being home on the couch,” he said.
Sean O'Donnell was the first to check in. He's a high school senior from Baltimore. He decided to try out after his dad's friend told him how much fun it was being a lifeguard for Dewey Beach.
“I thought it sounded intriguing and decided to give it a shot,” he said.
When asked if he was ready, O'Donnell said he played a number of different sports and had been training.
“I've been running and swimming – all that good stuff,” he said.
Two girls tried out – Josie Nixon a senior in high school from Bear and Lyndsay Taddei a college freshman from Newark.
The two friends are lifeguards at their local upstate YMCA and decided to try out together months ago. They were glad to finally get the process started.
Nixon said she has a family house in Dewey and had spent her life at the beach during the summers.
“I've always thought it would be fun to be a lifeguard down here,” she said.
The two girls didn't mind the poor weather conditions either.
“It's the one weekend it fits into both our schedules,” said Taddei.
Brian Misciwojewski of Felton signed in the participants. The upcoming season will be his fifth with the Dewey Beach Patrol. He said the weather for the first tryout was the worst he'd ever seen.
Misciwojewski was one of nearly a dozen patrol members on hand to help and encourage the participants. Fritchman, who has been captain for 18 years, said this isn't unusual. He said this is the first time that many of the lifeguards have seen each other since the end of last season and coming to the tryouts is a good way catch up.
Before the tryout even officially started, it was clear Fritchman would be running a tight schedule. As participants checked in, he kept telling them it would make sense for them to go down to the beach, stretch and be ready at 11:30 a.m. sharp. If they weren't ready to go, it wasn't going to be his fault.
One young man showed up just after 11:30. He explained that he couldn't find the Dewey Beach Lifesaving Station and had to stop at the town's police station to get directions. Fritchman didn't care. He politely told the young man that it was too late for that day's tryout, but he encouraged him to come to one of the other two. After the young man left, Fritchman turned and said he was off to a bad start.
The first part of the test included a 1-mile run on the beach followed by a 220-yard sprint in the cold sand in front of the lifesaving station on Dagsworthy Avenue. A few dedicated beachgoers were getting their walks in, but for the most part, the beach was deserted.
The participants all wore shorts and had bare feet. The patrol members all wore sweatpants and their bright yellow, foul-weather gear with a big DBP on the back – they were warm, but they have earned the right to be.
Fritchman said patrol gear is a big deal for the lifeguards. A select group of people get to wear it and they all take the responsibilities associated with wearing it seriously, he said.
O'Donnell ended up finishing first in both the mile and the sprint. Times for the two events went from 11:32 to 18:11 for the mile and 32 to 40 seconds in the sprint.
With the running portion completed, Fritchman gathered the group and instructed them to make their way to Sussex Family YMCA for the swim test.
Almost immediately into the three-part swim test it became clear that half of the applicants weren't cut out for the job. The first part of the test was a 200-yard swim, which means four round trips in the 25-yard pool. They were instructed to swim freestyle, not to stop and not to touch the bottom. Some applicants could not complete the task.
“Our job is in the Atlantic Ocean. If you can't swim in a bathtub, you're not going to be able to swim in the ocean,” said Fritchman.
The second and third parts of the swim test were life-saving techniques. Fritchman had explained this was more of an aptitude test of sorts: He wants to know he can tell a person something, and they'll get it in a relatively short time frame.
Not surprisingly, the stronger swimmers were able to do the maneuvers, while the weaker swimmers struggled.
The final part of the tryout involved two strength test staples done to fail – pullups and pushups – and Fritchman wanted strict form. These two moves demonstrate the ability to lift your own bodyweight.
Male applicants did pullups one at a time. They were to be done as smoothly as possible (no cheating by swinging the body) with an overhand grip. For one to count the arms started straight, the chin went above the bar, the arms went back to being straight. Fritchman demonstrated what he wanted the male applicants to do by ripping off three or four. The girls did arm hangs with their chins above the bar.
Prior to the test, Fritchman said 10 to 15 pullups would be good. The high for the day, which was O'Donnell, was 15. The low was zero. Both girls got over a minute.
All applicants did pushups in unison. Fritchman wanted hands shoulder width apart, back straight and chest had to touch the floor. He instructed that he would say down and everybody would have to go down and back up. They weren't allowed to go down again until he said so.
Prior to the test, Fritchman said somewhere between 80 and 100 would be excellent. The high was 57. The low was in the 20s.
When the tests were over, the young men and women sat against the wall looking exhausted. They had spent a good portion of their Sunday morning being judged, and some knew they hadn't passed.
Fritchman thanked all eight for trying out. He was frank, but appreciative. He explained that not everybody makes the patrol; this year 40 people are trying out for 10 to 12 spots.
“Some of the people did exceptional, and you'll be hearing from us soon,” he said. “For the others, we don't want you to think poorly of the Dewey Beach Patrol.” He encouraged them to work on the things they struggled with and to try again.
O'Donnell was pleased with the way his day went.
“I think it went pretty well. I got to talk with the guys. It was demanding physically,” he said. “But that's what you want it to be. You can't have any questions about whether or not someone is up to the task. It's good that it was tough.”