Volusia takes lifeguard championships to ‘next level’

By Linda Santacruz
Published: Monday, April 27, 2015 at 2:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 12:30 a.m.

DAYTONA BEACH — AJ Miller took a deep breath as he stood facing the ocean with a paddleboard on his side.

The copper-skinned lifeguard, wearing a small red Speedo and tight blue tank top, plunged full speed into the water, forcing his arms through breaking waves. He raced to a certain distance before paddling back and sprinting off on a soft patch of sand.

Miller would do five more of these laps, part of his training for the National Lifeguard Championships to be held in Daytona Beach Aug. 5-8. It’ll be the first time since 2004 that the United States Lifesaving Association will host its national event here, and Miller is determined to show the competition what he and his teammates can do.

“It’s good to put yourself against other departments to see how you pan out,” said the 30-year-old captain for Volusia County Beach Safety Division. “As hard as we train for (the championships), it just makes us that much better at pulling people out of the water, running to a medical call, chasing somebody down the beach.”

That’s one reason why Mark Swanson, the beach safety director, traveled to California last year on behalf of the Volusia Surf Lifesaving Association and convinced the organizers to bring the national championships back to Daytona. The other reason was for an economic boost.

“It brings about 3,000 people into town,” he said. “It sparks the economy because people will use our restaurants, our facilities, stay in our hotels. Not only do the competitors come, but they bring their families as well.”

Swanson isn’t sure how much money the event will generate to the local economy, however, it pumped more than $500,000 in direct spending last year in Virginia Beach.

The event drew nearly 1,000 out-of-towners, according to a report by Virginia-based Elite Sport Marketing.

But Swanson and the event’s organizers are expecting a bigger turnout this year.

About 1,600 room nights are already blocked at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort for the lifeguard championships, which will take place behind the hotel near the Clock Tower. Team tents, vendors and bleachers for spectators are planned as well as a Jumbotron video screen and sound system.

“We’re going to have some cameras in the water and put those images onto the screen on the Boardwalk so that people know what’s happening,” Swanson said. “We’re taking this event to the next level.”

Sponsoring those “next level” costs will be clothing company Nautica and Daytona Beach-based Brown & Brown Insurance. Charlie Lydecker, a top executive at Brown & Brown and co-chairman of the event, said each company will contribute about $40,000.

That also includes paying for Brooke Bennett, a three-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, to be a commentator at the championships.

“We’re inventing and coming up with a whole bunch of new ways of (hosting the event),” said Lydecker, who worked summers as a lifeguard during college and will be competing and defending three national titles with his Long Island, N.Y. team. “If you’re walking up and down the Boardwalk or you’re staying at the hotel, you want to see a big venue that says ‘Come on in.’”

Further, Swanson will go before the Halifax Area Advertising Authority board next month to propose a funding request for advertising. The money will help land a television gig that will broadcast the championships, he said.

Those ideas were inspired in part by lifeguard competitions in Australia, where Miller said the events are as big as professional football games here. Other influences come from the 2002 Lifesaving World Championships, which was held in Daytona Beach for the first and only time it was brought to the United States.

The United States Lifesaving Association received several bids from cities last year wishing to host the nationals, said Chris Brewster, the association’s president. But the Volusia team delivered “a strong proposal that really tipped the scale in their favor,” he said.

“Their proposal went well beyond the circumstances that are typical at one of these events,” Brewster said. “It’s really clear that they want the competitors to leave saying ‘This was the best nationals we have ever attended.’ From what we’ve seen, I think they’ve got a really good chance of realizing that.”

The beach safety division had endured controversies in the past, including a 2009 underage sex scandal that led to one officer serving prison time and a 2011 incident in which a Beach Patrol truck ran over a sunbather. Since Swanson’s arrival about two years ago, the department has undergone a series of changes, including renaming the former Beach Patrol.

Bringing competition back was part of building camaraderie, Swanson said. Miller agrees.

“I know we had a couple years where we had some spotty stuff in the papers,” he said. “The competition will spin some people’s perception. Lifeguarding is not just a job. It’s a lifestyle, and we want to bring that into this community.”

April 27, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *