Don't be fooled. Running with those bright red lifeguard buoys that sit at the base of lifeguard stands everywhere takes skill, and I have the rope burn on my left foot and sand in my ear to prove it.
The Dewey Beach Patrol held its annual rookie testing July 15 and 16, and Capt. Todd Fritchman decided to do something he had never done before – let a reporter take a portion of the test after he was brilliant, or dumb, enough to ask.
I had gotten the idea earlier in the week while I was running – I log somewhere between 25 and 30 miles a week and work out regularly. Running is a time in the morning when I generally feel pretty good about myself and the idea popped into my head about halfway through five miles. I also have a sizable sweet tooth and the love handles to prove it. But I figured the test would be something interesting to try and it wouldn’t be the first time I made a fool of myself if I failed miserably.
“There's always a first for everything,” Fritchman said with a what-an-idiot smile as I handed him a doctor's note that said I was cleared for all activity – a precaution Fritchman required, just in case.
There were two days of rookie testing; I didn’t participate in the first, which included a 1.2-mile swim and a run-swim-run event.
I'm going to use previous work engagements as the reason why I didn't participate in the first day's testing, but I know someone would have had to make an open-water rescue if I attempted to swim more than a mile. I’m not a swimmer at the beach. I’m a play in the waves, do a little body surfing and chase my 18-month-old around type of person.
The second day of testing began at 8 a.m., and that’s as good a time as any for me to put myself through what is affectionately called “the House of Pain” on the patrol’s white board in the Dewey Beach Life Saving Station on Dagsworthy Ave. The day included eight events – a half-mile run, push-ups to max, a 200-yard soft sand sprint, a sprint swim to a buoy 40 yards out, buoy charges, line charges, an open-water rescue and the guard stand pull.
Fritchman said to be at the station at 7 a.m. to get ready and stretch. Showing up at the last minute would be bad for the psyche, he said.
The morning of the test it was pouring rain. Maybe they’ll cancel, I thought, and since I’m going on vacation the next day, I’d have an excusable out. But I also covered the first of three rookie tryouts in the rain earlier this year and have been told by Fritchman that the only thing that stops them is lightning, so I packed a bag and drove to the station. Before leaving, my wife, who was a lifeguard, swam in college and knows that I’m not a swimmer, told me to remember to use my feet while swimming. And basically to not kill myself.
Prior to the test there wasn't much talking amongst the 16 rookies, just some light banter among people who were ready to have the test over with. There was a noticeable look of satisfaction from the veteran members of the patrol as they arrived to support the rookies. The look said, “Better you then me.”
After the test was over, Lt. Chris Muscara, who has been with the patrol for 13 years, said the rookie test was the most excruciating thing he’s ever had to do.
“I was right out of high school, a captain on a couple of different teams,” he said. “My goal was to finish. To do well in the events I knew I could and to finish the others.”
A quick description of the rookies is needed at this point. At 33, I was at least 10 years older than the next closest person taking the test. There were 13 men and three women. All of them have the bodies of athletes – swimmers, basketball players, field hockey players, tennis players and wrestlers. Name the sport; someone in this group excels at it. They’re all lean – Fritchman said they’ve all lost 10 to 15 pounds since starting at the beginning of the summer.
After about 45 minutes in the station’s meeting room, the group walked down to the beach and then jogged to the half-mile run starting point. The run was back to the station at Dagsworthy.
There was literally no time in between events and no time to talk. The only competitors who got time to rest were the ones who finished at the front, which meant for me, who was near the back in all of them, there was almost no rest at all.
After the first two events, I was feeling pretty good. I finished middle of the pack in the half-mile run and in push-ups. But those were events I do regularly. The rookies quickly began to separate themselves after that.
I’ve never been accused of running too fast in anything - and with the wet, soft, and heavy sand today wasn't going to be the day that changed - so finishing near the end in the sprint didn’t surprise me.
The next event, the sprint swim, was a doozy. My wife and I go to the beach almost every weekend and the waves on the morning of the test were probably the biggest I'd seen all season - five foot swells crashing right on the beach.
Like I said earlier, I’m not a swimmer. I grew up near the beach, so I’m comfortable playing in the rough and I know how to swim, but swimming in open water is something I’ve never had an interest to do. I lost track, but I swallowed a mouth full of water at least five times and my whole body was loosey goosy when I came back to shore. If there was a time when I was going to give up, it was after that event.
We were also wearing the lifeguard buoys, which I had never used before. I've also never swam with 16 other people to a point in the distance. I went to the wrong side of the marker and got in the way of the people in the front who had made the turn. Rookie move, I remember thinking.
The next events, the buoy charges and the line charges, were like doing suicide sprints in water. Both events had us starting in the soft sand and sprinting to the water, where two of the veterans where holding a rope 60 feet long.
In the buoy charges, the rope was shin-high and we had to turn and face the beach, do a pushup and then run back. We did that for two minutes. That was when I got the rope burn on my foot. I would have had enough trouble doing the event without the buoy, but on my second time heading towards the water, I got the rope that’s attached to the black shoulder strap wrapped around my big toe and did a face plant in the sand. What an idiot, I was thinking, but I just got back up and kept going.
For the line charges, the veterans moved out to chest high and we had to touch the rope and go back to the beach five times. Sounds easy enough. It wasn’t. That’s about all I can say, because at this point I wasn’t thinking clearly.
I didn't take part in the open water rescue because that required lifesaving skills I don’t have. The rookies had to make an open water rescue and then perform emergency response techniques. As I stood on the beach, with the rain continuing to come down, all I could think about was how glad I was that nobody's life would be in my tired and pruned hands later in the day.
The final event, the guard stand pull, may seem unnecessary, but Fritchman said the guards have to pull their stands into position everyday. “It’s one of the most basic parts of the job,” he said.
That went fine because adrenaline pulled me through.
In the end, I accomplished what I set out to – finish.
I wasn't near the top of the pack, but, in my mind, I didn't embarrass by myself either. I'd say that throughout the test the veteran crew members were as supportive as they could be for a outsider, a reporter no less, coming into their world. They counted out reps, explained events and, despite the rain and pain, kept the mood upbeat.
Breathing a sigh of relief
The test was over and we were back in the station putting on dry clothes by 9 a.m. We had done all that in a hour. The rookies were exhausted, but had that look of being able to take on the world. They were no longer rookies and were now certified by the U. S. Lifesaving Association in open water rescue.
Jared Morris of Dover said it went well enough that he thought he could do it again if he had to.
“I don’t want to, but physically, if I had to, I probably could,” he said.
Connor Sweeney of Wilmington thought it went well and was glad there were no more rookie workouts.
Both were looking forward to coming back next summer as veterans.
Senior Lt. Mike Thompson, who has been with Fritchman since he took over as captain 18 years ago, said he thought the group did well. He said the weather for the test was about as bad as he could remember, which could be why some times were a little slower than usual.
“But everybody worked hard and tried,” he said.
Thompson still runs the workouts leading up to the event, and he said he sometimes would like to see how he’d do. “Except for the mile swim,” he said.
Fritchman said he thought it went well for the adverse weather conditions. The purpose of the test is to shock the body, he said, but it’s also a simulation of something that could happen in real life.
The beach is over a mile long and there could be a situation that calls for a guard to run the entire length and then jump into the water so save a person, he said. The rookies need to know that they can perform and respond.
Fritchman said that 95 percent of the time the guards are watching, surveying and monitoring their surroundings, but when they’re needed they have to be able to react and know what to do.
What I learned is that lifeguards make their jobs look easy, and that I’m still not a swimmer.