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TV show doesn't do them justice

June 08, 2008|Ron Harris | The Associated Press

Eric Atkeson's eyes dart across a sun-drenched stretch of beach, looking for ever-so-slight signs of trouble. His gaze fixes on three young boys splashing around in the water, just a bit farther out than he's comfortable with.

His words trail off in mid-sentence, and suddenly he's making a beeline for the boys and an adult near them. One lecture later and the boys have moved a little closer to shore.

Atkeson, 51, heads back to his lifeguard tower at Manhattan Beach, weathered crows feet smiling at the corners of his eyes.

He's a lifeguard, and he's done this a few times.

Atkeson could have stopped guarding beachgoers years ago, packed up his flip-flops and headed toward retirement.

But he and many of his colleagues can't seem to pull themselves away from the waterfront.

"I grew up here. This is my family. We're all brothers and sisters here. It's just a way of life," Atkeson said.

"For a lot of us, we love the beach so much that we found a way to make a living at the beach," Atkeson said. "And it keeps us in shape. A lot of the old retired guys, they live for a long time."

The Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service -- the biggest and busiest lifeguard operation in the nation -- is governed by the Fire Department, which emphasizes a level of professionalism above and beyond the vehicle by which most of the public knows them best, the television series "Baywatch."

Lifeguard Capt. Terry Harvey, a spokesman for the vast operation -- there are 181 permanent lifeguards and 758 seasonal ones -- says the show wielded a double-edged sword.

"It did good and bad for us. It basically put a big spotlight on our occupation and what we do. And then again, it also gave an image, a nonprofessional image I want to say, about what we do in our occupation," Harvey said.

What was that "bad" image? The lifeguard as a laid-back make-out artist hitting on girls in bikinis and working on his tan all day, for the most part. The reality of an L.A. County lifeguard is decidedly different.

"Slackers need not apply," Harvey said.

There are vigorous workouts throughout the day. A few sit-ups here, some abdominal crunches there, wind sprints up and down a firm stretch of beach. It breaks up the monotony, keeps everyone in shape and keeps the lifeguards aware of their surroundings.

A sly but strong rip current is easier to detect if you take a swim once an hour.

The lifeguards also keep an eye peeled for surfers and boogie boarders in distress. There are little signs, imperceptible to most, that are giveaways for experienced lifeguards.

Theresa Connelly, a lifeguard with 18 years of experience, watches intently from the corner of a large watch station on Manhattan Beach. She spots a boogie boarder pulling a couple of rookie moves in the water.

"Your eyes automatically just focus in on it because you sort of notice the level of competency. No wet suit. No fins. You kind of deduct that they're not going to be the best boogie boarders around," Connelly said.

Even experienced surfers looking for a nice break can get themselves in trouble and require saving, Lifeguard Capt. Greg Lee said.

The county's lifeguard operation makes an estimated 10,000 rescues a year, and the beaches welcome 60 million visitors annually.

Many of the lifeguards, such as Lee, have made a career out of it. He's been a lifeguard since 1980 and employed year-round since 1986.

"Well, the lifestyle is awesome," Lee said. "I see my neighbors getting ready to go to work in the morning and going out to their cars and they have suits and ties on, and I'm walking out to my car at just about the same time and I have shorts and sandals on, a T-shirt, and my most valuable piece of equipment are my sunglasses. And they just look at me like 'Are you working today?' "

His job that day may be to save them.

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