Week in the Life, Lara Stouffer, junior lifeguard: Tough initiation rite for `Baywatch' wannabees

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The Independent Online
LARA STOUFFER is rarely dry. As a competitive swimmer, she spends hours every afternoon churning through chlorinated water in work-out sessions, but this summer the nine-year-old is also taking part in a gruelling summer bootcamp on the beach.

With 1,200 other southern Californian youngsters, Lara reports every morning for roll call beside the pier at Newport Beach, where the city Marine and Fire Department organises a boisterous group of aspiring junior lifeguards and trains them to brave the waves.

Now in its 16th year, the programme has become a tough coming-of-age ritual for the area's pre-adolescents. Many eventually go on to become those red-suited icons with whistles round their necks who perch on towers, Baywatch-style, and peer at the horizon for a living. They view their responsibility with duty and pride, honed through years of Stepford-style drills. For the slightest infraction of the rules, for instance saying "yeah" rather than "yessir" to an instructor, the schoolchildren must drop immediately to the sand and do 10 push-ups.

ON MONDAY morning Lara rolls out of bed reluctantly. When the fog burns off at 10am, it is time for the Monster Mile. What this requires is assembling some suitably scary fancy-dress, one that can be quickly shed, for a footrace across an entire mile of soft sand, followed by a mile-long return swim to the finish line. The breakers are slamming hard on shore, and Lara clutches her fins tightly. "I can't wimp out," she mutters.

Rather than encumber herself with a frightwig, Lara trails a banner emblazoned with a snaggle-toothed dragon. Until the competition gets under way, there is a lot of jostling and jeering, but nearly everyone straggles out of the surf at the end of the course.

LARA'S COACH demands that she strike her usual furrows through the pool's 50-metre lanes for an hour on Tuesday and undergo a series of drills to quicken her flip-turns but, uncharacteristically, there is no grit in her swimsuit at the end of the day. No beach, so no salt, no sand.

NOT SO on Wednesday when the most gung-ho junior guards come out early, at 8.30am, to compete in the Iron Man. This is an event adapted to the beach, and dispenses with the usual cycling portion.

Only 10 per cent of the kids in the programme are up to the challenge and appear at the Santa Ana river jetty like a raiding party of midgets in rubber surf caps. From there they run 2.2 miles, then swim twice out to a buoy for 400 metres. Still wet, they dash over the sand down to the Balboa Pier, for 1.7 miles, and stroke through the waves twice to another buoy 400 metres away.

Racing back to shore, riding the waves to boost their performance, the group hoofs it over the sand for a final 1.1 miles to end up at the Wedge, a triangular beach formed by a stone jetty at the mouth of the harbour, infamous for its treacherous waves that wallop body-surfers right into the sand. Big signboards warn of the dangers of snapping one's spine on a sandbar.

GETTING UP early enough on day four allows Lara to meet her friend, Molly, and catch a three-car ferryboat across Balboa Bay, where Humphrey Bogart once wooed Lauren Bacall on his yacht.

It's rare for local girls and boys ever to be out of their parents' strict supervision, but now they can merge with a swarm of junior lifeguards - all dressed identically in red shorts, white shirts and blue backpacks and advancing on the pier. There's a heady sense of freedom.

Lara and Molly pull on their special rash guards, designed specifically to prevent sandscrapes after being tossed on shore by a big roller, and take turns body-surfing while an instructor gives them pointers.

FRIDAY IS the real rite of passage. The group trudges reluctantly out on to the edge of the pier, which rises 25 feet over the surface of the water. From above it looks grey and snarly. The tide sloshes around the pilings, and the Vietnamese and Mexican immigrant fishermen, who often dangle hooks here, are shooed away.

Lara waits for an instructor to tap her on the shoulder, her heart pounding. She has just a moment to wiggle under the railing and launch herself into the air.

The programme trains the guards to react quickly and hesitation is not tolerated, even in nine-year-olds. One by one, the junior guards gasp, squeal and, after a juddering pause, finally splash. Two of the boys lose their nerve and slink away from the group, eyes on the ground. "When you jump, it is really much farther down than it seems," Lara observes, "and it lasts a long time." She is relieved it's over. The saltwater tastes bitter in the back of her mouth and she spits daintily. When one lad lands on his belly with a thump, there are giggles and sympathetic groans and, when he swims gamely to shore, applause.

SATURDAY SEES a graduation ceremony on the sand, and a video is projected on a screen after sundown. Lara watches her pier jump in slow-motion and beams.

Up on a makeshift stage, the fire chief, Tim Riley, drones on about how "the ocean can reach out, grab you and hurt you", unless you practise the safety code. "Now you can save yourselves, your friends, your family, and even others. Police the beaches and keep Newport the safest place to be."

All 1,200 participants claim their diplomas while the breakers tumble on to the beach. "Pool water is warmer and smoother," Lara says brightly. "But I do like these waves."