Once more unto the breach: For some people, life-saving is much more than a useful skill in aquatic emergencies. It's an art, and a competitive sport

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LIFE-SAVERS come in many shapes and sizes. At the lower end of the evolutionary scale, track-suited lizards bask around municipal pools, rarely stirring except to shout at swimmers through megaphones; higher up, tanned hunks ply their trade on the surf-swept coasts of California and Australia, braving spectacular seas and fierce currents before soaking up the sun - and the admiring glances - on golden beaches.

For some life-savers, however, admiring glances on the beach are not enough. They crave the respect not just of the laity, nor even of their immediate peers, but of the entire life-saving community. These are the most highly-evolved life-savers of all: the cream; the stars; the champions. And for them, the craving to be the best can be satisfied only by direct, head-to-head competition.

The World Lifesaving Championships are the high point in the competitive life-saver's calendar. First held in 1981, they take place every two years, usually in exotic sun-drenched locations such as Bali, Hawaii or Queensland. This year's were held in Cornwall, three weeks ago, near Newquay.

There was considerable scepticism among the elite international lifeguards who converged on Fistral Beach for Rescue '94: not just about the climate, which was many degrees cooler than most were used to, but about the water, which many felt would be insufficiently testing for their requirements. They need not have worried. The sun may have stayed away, but the surf got up and stayed up. For three days, 4ft and 5ft breakers pounded Fistral Beach like a bass drum, assisted by a percussion of rib-chilling winds and scalp-numbing showers. Even the Australians, predictably scathing about British life-saving, were silenced, as, on the first two days, their surf skis (finger-shaped fibreglass canoes) were contemptuously tossed over their swimming-capped heads by the raging seas. These were conditions fit to challenge champions.

Competitive life-saving involves a variety of disciplines, including surfing, beach-running and retrieving volunteer 'patients' (an appropriate term, given the temperature) from well beyond the surf zone. The most prestigious event of all, the individual 'Iron Man' event, involves running, swimming, surf-skiing and board-paddling. 'Events are devised to test all the physical attributes, and a host of specialist skills,' explains Peter Foxwell, team manager of Perranporth Surf Life-saving Club (based a few miles down the coast from Fistral Beach). The aim is to stretch competitors in as many ways as possible, not merely for competitive purposes but to make them better life-savers. 'People who say this business is just a sport miss the point,' says Foxwell.

One of the qualities tested at Fistral Beach was the ability to endure the cold. Light wet-suits were allowed when the sea-temperatures dropped below 16C, which they often did; yet most competitors, whether through bravado or for fear of impairing their performance, chose not to. Among the 5,000 or so shivering spectators, meanwhile, there were mutterings about appearance money; yet they too refused to let the conditions ruin the occasion. Even in howling gales, the sport is enthralling to watch, not least because the sea provides an element of luck that keeps the outcome of most events in doubt until the finishing line. In a race back to the beach, for example, a swimmer in last place might get lucky by catching a large wave and body-surfing past all his rivals.

Despite the cold, the Australians, as usual, dominated Rescue '94. They won the international team gold, and the supreme individual 'Iron Man' event was won by Trevor Hendy, an international celebrity from Queensland's Gold Coast. But there were encouraging British performances. Welshman Aled Reece took gold in the 2km beach run, the first-ever British victory in this event, and the British team came fourth overall, out of 24 nations.

They will do well to improve on this in Durban in 1996. Life-saving requires speed, agility, lung-bursting stamina and, above all, brute strength, and few Britons can compete with the giant physiques of the best Australians and New Zealanders - even though, like all life-savers, they pump iron in the winter as zealously as they swim in the summer. And whereas in the USA, for example, all life-guards are paid professionals, 99 per cent of British life-guards are amateurs. There are just over 60 volunteer clubs strung out around Britain's 3,000-mile coastline, sustained by Government grants totalling just pounds 32,000 a year. In the southern hemisphere, Trevor Hendy's exploits have made him not just a superstar but a millionaire, but the heroes of British life-saving remain both anonymous and impoverished, and clubs like Perranporth and Poppit Bay (Aled Reece's club, near Cardigan) rely largely on donations for their survival.

Rescue '94 took place in an atmosphere of easy bonhomie more usually associated with wholly amateur sports, but many of the competitors earn substantial incomes both as salaried lifeguards and as sponsored athletes. Competitive life-saving may be a marginal activity in Britain, but the International Life-saving Federation claims to represent 25 million members worldwide, many of whom are able to sustain enviable lifestyles on a kind of 'Have pecs will travel' basis, taking their skills from country to country as the mood takes them. Such hedonism would be unimaginable to most British life-savers.

This difference in attitudes lent a sense of incongruity to the proceedings at Fistral, which at times seemed in danger of being overwhelmed by the scale of events. The influx of people - more than 1,000 competitors, plus support teams - stretched the area's B & B

facilities to breaking point; the still-water events that preceded the beach competition had to be held in Cardiff, because no local swimming-pool was big enough; and the final day's beach competition had to be relocated to nearby Towan beach after the organisers found themselves short of working safety-boats. (A drowning at the championships would make catastrophic PR, and so no chances could be taken.) And although locals eventually grew accustomed to such sights as a German team insisting on a press photographer taking three separate versions of a shot, in a different sponsor's kit each time, it is hard to imagine a British team causing such awkwardness.

Yet the British remain cheerfully optimistic about their future prospects in the sport, and proud of their achievements as life-savers in the more conventional sense. Members of Perranporth club have rescued some 1,300 people since the club's inception in 1956; while at Poppit Bay, according to Aled Reece, 'Since we started patrolling the beach 12 years ago there hasn't been a single drowning. Before that there was two or three every year.'

And what do Poppit Bay's locals think of their life-saving heroes? 'One or two think we're cool,' says Reece. 'But the majority think we're beach-bums and keep yelling 'Baywatch]' at us.'

(Photographs omitted)