The next time you're at the beach or the pool, enviously pondering the life-style or, maybe, the tan lines of the lifeguard seated in her elevated chair, and you start to mutter those all-too-familiar words, "She's no rocket scientist"—bite your tongue. You never know who may lurk on that lofty perch. If you're in Los Angeles, you might be dealing with Sheryl Luera.
Luera, a computer software engineer for a Southern California aerospace firm, moonlights weekends as a lifeguard on the Los Angeles County beaches. Last July, she and five teammates traveled to the shores of Jacob Riis Park in Queens, N.Y., to win L.A. County's second straight title at the sixth annual All-Women Lifeguard Tournament.
Still the only lifeguard tournament in the country exclusively for women, the competition was founded in 1985 to encourage and recognize the participation of women as lifeguards. At the time life-guarding was (and it still is, although to a lesser extent) dominated by men. The males had plenty of tournaments to compete in, but until the All-Women, their female colleagues could do little more than cheer the guys on. Occasionally a men's tournament would schedule a relay race for women, but for the most part female lifeguards remained bored bystanders. That is, until Jill Friedman, a lifeguard for 15 years, had the inspiration for the first All-Women tournament at Riis Park on the Rockaway Peninsula, a couple of miles from the clattering roller coasters of Coney Island to the west and the thunder of the Concordes landing at Kennedy International Airport to the east.
Last year, the All-Women, which is staged under the auspices of the National Park Service, drew 156 athletes representing 23 lifeguard services from five states. They participated in seven events, all designed to test endurance and surf-rescue abilities.
That put lifeguards from pools and lakes at a disadvantage, but most of them took their handicaps in stride. As 19-year-old Theresa Ciniglio said after carrying a seemingly unfamiliar piece of equipment surfward by the only handle she could find, "We're from Cranford [N.J.] Pools! That's why I was carrying that surfboard by the fin! I don't know how to carry it!" Ciniglio decided to skip the paddling events.
The only handicaps the defending champion L.A. County team suffered were a case of jet lag and a dose of culture shock. Whereas many of the teams spent the night before the tournament camped at a rustic sheltered area near the competition site, L.A. County eschewed that option in favor of a Brooklyn motel. When they checked into their night's lodgings, the desk clerk took one look at the eight tanned and fit Californians standing before him and asked if they wanted all-night rooms or the four-hour rooms on the first floor. The lifeguards schlepped their equipment to their rooms—on the second floor—and vowed to be among the first to be on the beach of Jacob Riis Park the following morning.
On this talented team, none was stronger than Diane Graner. A former All-America backstroker at UCLA who swam in the 1984 and '88 Olympic trials, Graner won three events and finished second in another in the '89 All-Women to lead L.A. to the title in its first appearance at the tournament. Graner, 26, has been lifeguarding for nine years and coaches junior lifeguards in the L.A. County system. She also coaches the Culver City High girls' swim team, is in charge of a Masters swimming program for the city of Santa Monica and holds several age-group world records in Masters competition.
Graner was the favorite in the first event, the run-swim-run, having won it the previous year. In this race, competitors run 150 yards parallel to the shoreline, swim out 150 yards and around one buoy, another 150 around a second buoy, and a final 150 to the shore, where they dash another 150 yards parallel to the shore to the finish line. Through most of the 1990 race Graner was neck and neck with the Wildwood Crest (N.J.) Beach Patrol's Betsy O'Donnell, a former University of Virginia All-America 400 individual medley swimmer who also swam at the '88 Olympic trials. On the final leg of the swim, though, O'Donnell caught a wave 40 yards from the shore and hit the beach with a 10-yard advantage over Graner. She sprinted home for a relatively easy win, to the surprise and dismay of Graner and her West Coast teammates.
L.A. came back strong in the run-paddle-run, in which a 600-yard paddle on a 12-foot-long rescue board is substituted for the run-swim-run's 450-yard swim. Again Graner finished second, but this time to teammate Shari Latta, a 31-year-old director of a preschool program who also oversees a summertime junior lifeguard program in her hometown of Malibu. A dedicated surfer for the past 12 years, Latta claims never to have learned any stroke other than the dog paddle until she was 26 and decided to become a lifeguard. This time it was Latta who caught a wave in to finish the race 40 yards ahead of Graner, who was followed by Luera and Lisa Dial, the latter a 23-year-old TV-radio major at Cal State-Northridge, for an L.A. County sweep. Afterward a cheerful, if frustrated, Graner made sure to point out that "last year Shari caught the only wave, too." "It must be my New York wave karma," Latta replied, good-naturedly indicating some sharp skepticism about Graner's excuse.
The most grueling event of the tournament is the "ironwoman," which puts the run-swim-run and the run-paddle-run back-to-back for 1,050 yards of hell-hell-hell. Graner and O'Donnell were neck and neck again as they came around the final buoy on the swimming leg. This time, however, O'Donnell did not get a free ride on a wave and emerged from the surf with only a 15-yard advantage as she ran the 150 yards to her big rescue board. O'Donnell's inexperience at paddling was her downfall. The Jersey lifeguard knelt on the board and flailed at the water. Graner, lying on her stomach and using a relaxed stroke, inexorably moved into the lead and other contestants soon overhauled the former leader. Graner hit the sand first and dashed to the finish, followed by Latta, Dial and Jeannine Sirey of Jones Beach, N.Y.
Jones Beach had been the '88 All-Women champion and Sirey, a sophomore who swims the 200 individual medley for American University, has been a lifeguard at Jones Beach for three years. "We used to win everything...and then L.A. County came," she said with a smile. "Before L.A. County showed up, I got first in the ironwoman. This year I was fourth."
Sirey was not the only disappointed competitor in the ironwoman. After the race O'Donnell said, "I got second to Diane in the ironwoman last year, and I came here to win the thing. But the California girls are so good. Last year I even hung Diane's picture on my mirror, I wanted to beat her so badly. I run a lot and I swim a lot, but she beat me on the surfboard."
O'Donnell would also finish third to first-place Graner in the final individual event of the day, the surf rescue. This race calls for the rescuer to swim out 150 yards from shore, towing a torpedo-shaped flotation device, and pull the awaiting "victim" to safety.
It's not by chance that L.A. is so strong. Many of its lifeguards work year-round, and its training program is one of the toughest. "L.A. County's like a paramilitary organization," Latta said—or at least like boot camp. To become one of L.A. County's 600 lifeguards, Latta said, "you have to start out with a 1,000-meter ocean swim in winter without wet suits. The top 100 [out of a usual complement of about 300 aspirants] are then interviewed, and the selection board takes the 60 most-qualified candidates. In the interview you have to answer questions about surf characteristics, decision-making and preparedness. You learn to follow orders. There are lieutenants, captains, a chief and ocean lifeguards."
The last events of the All-Women were a pair of three-person relays. Sirey saved the honor of Jones Beach by anchoring the Easterners to a win over runner-up L.A. County in the swim-run relay, swimming 150 yards out around a buoy, 25 yards to another buoy and 150 yards back to shore before the final 25-yard sprint to the finish. And in the run-swim-paddle relay, Latta ran, Graner swam and Luera paddled like, well, a rocket scientist, to claim L.A. County's final victory and its second straight Division I title. Not just another day at the beach for L.A. County, for sure.