Jr. Lifeguards to the Rescue

JUNIOR LIFEGUARD ON DUTY Chris Wise (pictured here) was 11 years old when he won the United States Lifesaving Association’s National Under-12 Rescue Board Championship. Photo courtesy Gary Wise
Junior Lifeguards to the RescueLocal program aims to teach young people lifesaving skills at the beach By Zandra Wolfgram

The day after “Black Sunday” — the fateful June day in 2003 when record numbers of beach rescues and eight Gulf drownings were reported in Northwest Florida — 7-year-old Matt Wise became a hero. While surfing in the Gulf near his Miramar Beach home, he came upon two visitors struggling in a rip current. For his valiant efforts in seeing them safely to shore, the second-grader became the youngest recipient of the Heroic Act Award from the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA).

Though the South Walton Junior Lifeguard Program was far from being formed, the young beach lover didn’t question his natural instincts.

“I knew I was doing the right thing,” Matt said.

With a long list of coaching qualifications, international lifesaving accolades and athletic fetes, Gary Wise, two-time USLA Heroic Act Award recipient, South Walton Fire District’s beach safety director and father to Matt and Chris Wise, was well-suited for the task of shaping a junior lifeguard program.

Five years after Black Sunday and his son’s heroic act, the district’s Junior Lifeguard Program was born. Wise’s goal: to provide surf lifesaving experience that will become a lifelong passion.

“Our team-based philosophy encompasses leadership, camaraderie, teamwork and fun, while learning skills that will serve them well all their lives and maybe save many other lives,” he said.

Matt, 14, and his 12-year-old brother, Chris, are now award-winning graduates of the lifeguard program. The rigorous, five-week program is open to boys and girls from ages 9 to 15 with proven swimming skills. Enrollment is $220 per child.

Grouped by age, the kids take part in a series of rescue and relay feats to condition their bodies and strengthen their minds to prepare for real-life rescue scenarios. The challenging program doesn’t stop at standard first aid and CPR. It also delves into understanding weather and water conditions, beach safety systems, and even sun health and nutrition. Juniors learn how to navigate the waters with everything from kayaks to skim boards — and even receive an introduction to scuba diving.

Chris was already active in several sports and regularly working out before he joined the program at age 11, but he still prepared by running sprints.

He enjoys the social aspect of junior lifeguarding.

“You get to meet friends you may not know at school,” he said.

Matt, who competes on his school’s swim team, runs cross-country and enjoys playing baseball, is challenged by the physicality of lifeguarding.

“This program is for anyone who is willing to train and work hard,” he said.

Once they graduate from the program, juniors can compete in regional and national competitions. In August 2009, Chris and Matt dominated at the United States Lifesaving Association’s Southeast Regional Junior Lifeguard Championships, held in Daytona Beach. Chris took home a gold medal in the Beach Flags, Rescue Board race and Rescue Board 1K distance paddle, while Matt earned a gold medal in the Rescue Board race and Rescue Board 2K distance paddle.

The Wise brothers, along with four other juniors from South Walton’s program — Chase Cox, Lee Cox, Grayton Sheinkman and Walker Lehmen­ — also traveled to Fort Lauderdale the following week to compete in the USLA National Championship. Chris again was a standout, winning first place in board racing. Matt placed second in his age group in the same event.

“I am certainly proud of my boys, but all of the kids in this program are impressive,” Gary Wise said. “They put their full hearts in it and deserve recognition as well.”

Despite the thrill of lifesaving competitions, Chris is most proud of the day he put his training to the ultimate test just two months after graduation from the lifeguard program.

“I was out surfing with some people and I saw some swimmers in trouble. I quickly paddled over to them, calmed them and helped them stay afloat, and called in more help,” he said.

Most kids and teens go to the beach for the sheer joy of fun in the sun. The biggest excitement of the day is finally landing that trick on a skim board or wrestling a wrasse into your net. The graduates of the South Walton Junior Lifeguard Program go to the beach with other intentions — to save another life one day.


Junior Lifeguard Programs on the Emerald Coast

South Walton Junior Lifeguard Program
(850) 267-1298

Okaloosa Junior Lifeguard Program
(850) 259-3999

Destin Beach Safety Patrol
(850) 837-8413

Naval Air Station Pensacola Junior Lifeguard Program
(850) 452-9429