Some of the Beach’s best lifeguards are packing their trunks for the south of France.
Starting Saturday they will land at a seaside resort near Montpellier, but not to put up their feet – the lucky lifeguards are competing in Rescue 2014, the world championship of lifeguarding.
Speaking among the oars and paddle boards stored at Leuty Lifeguard Station, Beacher Juliann Desjardins said while the championship is not well known in Canada, it’s a big deal in countries with a strong surfing culture.
“In Australia, they are celebrities,” said Desjardins, a Beach resident who just finished her ninth summer with the Toronto Police Lifeguard Service (TPLS).
“They’re on cereal boxes. They get televised every weekend. They’re millionaires,” added Dakota Birkenheir, another Leuty lifeguard going to worlds.
“Yes, I’m jealous,” he said, laughing.
Birkenheir said Canada has a ways to go before it can match the likes of Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
But the sport is growing here, he said. Canada sent its first national team to worlds in 2000, and club teams like the TPLS have competed since 1977. Lifeguards across the country can now compete in city, provincial, and national contests that cover all three types of sport lifesaving: surf, pool, and technical rescue.
“There are very competitive swimmers – varsity and national-level swimmers that come and do well,” said Desjardins, who raced against several Olympians last year at a surf contest at Onjuku Beach, Japan.
Still, with 11 swimming, running, and paddling events to choose from, Desjardins said you don’t need to be a pro swimmer to medal.
Her favourite is surf ski, where lifeguards race special kayaks designed for beach rescues. And combined events like the Ocean Man favour well-rounded athletes – the lifeguarding triathlon combines a 400-metre swim with a 600-metre paddle board and an 800-metre surf ski race.
“There are enough events that you can find things you’re good at,” said Desjardins.
Lifeguards here in the Beach should have an edge, too, given how the TPLS has hosted provincial and national competitions every August at Kew/Balmy and Bluffers beach for most of the past nine years.
With a strong contingent of Leuty guards, the TPLS came second overall at the nationals in Parlee Beach, New Brunswick this year.
“We put in a good show,” said Bruce Hollowell, a TPLS supervisor who started lifeguarding on Toronto beaches in 1981. The winning team, the St. Laurent Masters, were a kind of “supergroup” of Ottawa, St. Laurent and other Quebec lifeguards who are all going to worlds.
“I told my friends if the Leafs could just include Edmonton and Winnipeg, they could win too,” he joked.
Medals aside, the championships give lifeguards a fun way to get fit and improve their rescue skills, said Desjardins, not to mention the chance to travel.
“It’s a great job,” she said.