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This Wild Ride Is Good for You

An Irvine water park's annual Olympics makes a family outing a fitness event too


At Wild Rivers Waterpark in Irvine, employees celebrate summer's end at a "lifeguard Olympics" that transforms the park into an obstacle course that weaves through wave pools, a lazy river and water slides. Saturday, the Olympic tradition will be turned on its head as civilians are invited to hurl themselves through the 2-mile course.

"It kind of marks the beginning of summer for us," says Jon Colletti, a Wild Rivers spokesman. "We thought we'd let the public see what it's like to be a lifeguard for a day. We wanted it to be competitive but also a fun event."

At the third-annual Wild Rivers Waterpark 5K & Waterpark Challenge, family members of all ages can run, swim and slide their way through three events. The suggested age minimum for the Waterpark Challenge is 11, but children as young as 9 usually can handle the slides, Colletti says. The all-ages 5K Run/Walk follows a path that bigger mammals once trod--the road through what used to be Lion Country Safari. The 10-and-under set can run in the Children's Quarter-Mile Mini Event, where every participant earns a medal for running from the inside to the outside of the water park.

By spinning a morning at the park as a fitness event, Wild Rivers is on to something, experts say. In this age of sedentary entertainment, parents should encourage any physical activity and seek to broaden the concept of what constitutes a workout. (Spokespeople for Hurricane Harbor in Valencia and Raging Waters in San Dimas say their parks do not stage similar events.)

"Research does show that if parents are physically active, the more likely their children will be active," says Julie Walton a professor of health and physical education at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "One thing good about encouraging parents and children to do things together, the kids will be more active as they become adults."

Lynn Jamieson, chair of the department of recreation and park administration at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., says there's also a positive lesson in viewing a water park as a sports destination.

"A study done by the University of Michigan 10 years ago showed that kids quit athletic activities because they aren't fun. They feel that sports have become too serious," Jamieson says. "So, from a fitness standpoint, it's important to teach them that no matter where you are, there are lots of ways to engage in being fit."

But make sure Mom comes along.

"The mother's level of activity seriously affects the child's. So in that respect, an event like that is a great thing," says Walton, who is known for staging amusing fitness events on Calvin's campus. (An indoor track race incorporated "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"-style questions in each lap, while a "Mt. Everest climb" ascended stairs.)

At Wild Rivers, the games begin with the Waterpark Challenge. Competitors swim across two wave pools before running to, then swimming around the Safari River Expedition, a quarter-mile loop usually filled with people floating on inner tubes. After that, they attack five water slides: the Wahtubee, a straight speed slide; Serengeti Surf Hill, a head-first slide; Sweitzer Falls, which dumps sliders into a pool; the Cobras, body slides that wind down a mountain; and Congo River Rapids, a whitewater-style ride. Known in the employee Olympics as the "iron man," the Waterpark Challenge takes about 15 minutes--and can be competitive. Last year's winner was a triathlete.

There are 13 age divisions for the Waterpark Challenge and the 5K race, ranging from under 12 to over 80. The top three male and female winners of the challenge win cash: $500 for first, $250 for second, $100 for third. Overall winners of the 5K are awarded prizes and gift certificates, while age-division winners of both races are given medals.

All participants will receive a ticket, valid that day only, to Wild Rivers. General admission is usually $25, compared with the $13-$17 race entry fee. Proceeds benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

But any summer day spent racing around the water park shouldn't be discounted in the exercise equation. "That's a day of physical activity that's quite worthwhile," Walton says. "Now, of course, if you could get the water parks to stop selling hot dogs and French fries."


The Wild Rivers Waterpark 5K and Waterpark Challenge, 8770 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, Saturday. Registration begins at 7 a.m., challenge at 8 a.m., 5K at 9 a.m., kid's race at 9:45 a.m. $17; 11 and younger, $13; fee includes same-day admission to park, open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (949) 788-0808 or

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