CORONA DEL MAR — For Buddy Belshe, each springtime signals another season of early morning workouts before his daily commute from home in Aliso Viejo to pick up his yellow lifeguard's Jeep.
It's a well-worn routine. At 61, Belshe, who has been doing this job for 46 years, is Orange County's oldest lifeguard.
"I'm one of those people who has always enjoyed working outdoors all my life," Belshe said. "It gets in your blood. And, I also happen to like people."
Ranked in the nation's top 10 in the lifeguard master's division and an experienced runner who can still blast a 10-K in 39 minutes, Belshe has become a kind of folk hero among lifeguards.
"Buddy is a legend," said Huntington Beach Lifeguard Lt. Mike Beuerlein.
There are older lifeguards. Los Angeles County's Clarence (Buddy) Hustler retired last year at age 64 after 49 years on the job. Harold Dunnigan, 64, is now the oldest in Los Angeles.
But none match Belshe's athletic ability, say co-workers, or his penchant for spotting trouble before it starts.
"No one is more dedicated in (sizing up) situations and protecting the public than Buddy," said Newport Beach Lifeguard Lt. Jim Turner. "He's the best lifeguard we have in the department in that aspect."
Turner recalled when he first met Belshe, a compact bundle of energy packed into a 5-foot-6 frame. Turner was a new lifeguard about to enter 55-degree ocean water in swim trunks.
"It was my first morning of training, and we were all huddling around trying to stay warm," Turner said. "And some little guy comes out of the pack, like out of nowhere, and says, 'C'mon boys, it's time to get in the water and play a little chase. Follow me.' Well, I remember us chasing this little guy in the water all around the pier. We couldn't catch him."
"That was typical Buddy," Turner added. "It's been over 20 years since then, and he still works out and swims with the young lifeguards."
In 1950, four days short of his 16th birthday, Belshe became a seasonal lifeguard for Huntington Beach. He worked 11 summers there before joining Newport Beach.
"My mom used to swim and so did my dad, so I just grew up swimming," Belshe said.
Belshe grew up in Huntington Beach, where he graduated from high school and was captain of the swim team. He attended Orange Coast College and became athlete of the year, then went to Denver University and later became an All-American swimmer in the 1,650-yard distance. He tried out for but missed being in the 1956 Olympics, Turner said.
As a lifeguard he has made dozens of successful water rescues, including one in 1969 involving two young men who had been swept down the Santa Ana River in inner tubes to the ocean off Newport Beach. The incident resulted in a state commendation.
"We had heavy rains that year," Belshe said. "There was so much debris that we couldn't swim but had to crawl over wood and logs to get to where these guys were. I was with three state lifeguards. One guy had gotten picked up, but the other was washed out to the surf and ended up quite far off shore. It took us a long time, about an hour to bring him back in. It was very cold and he suffered hypothermia but was safe."
Three years ago, Belshe rescued three people at one time off Corona del Mar.
"It could have easily been a double drowning," he said, "because one guy who couldn't swim clamped onto another. I couldn't get a buoy around them both so I had to hang onto them. The third person could swim and I talked him in with encouraging words. I had to end up dragging them both back to the shore. One guy was absolutely petrified. It was close, and it could have been a very scary situation."
Belshe retired as a lifeguard captain in 1987 to sell real estate. But a career of showing homes and sales networking wasn't his style.
"Retiring was the dumbest thing I ever did," Belshe said. "The moral of the story is that if you like what you're doing, you should stick with that."
He returned to the job he loves and works from Easter week through mid-September at Big Corona in Corona del Mar. The rest of the time is spent raising his two youngest boys, ages 9 and 7. Belshe, who is divorced, also has three older children from a previous marriage.
Belshe still stays in shape running and swimming. Presiding Orange County Superior Court Judge James L. Smith, who organizes a running team of judges, prosecutors and others, called the Oldtimers, recruited Belshe for an annual run from Baker to Las Vegas, in which the ages of the team runners must average 40.
"Judge Smith doesn't want me because I'm fast. He wants me because I'm old!" Belshe said, his tanned face crinkling in a wide grin.