WILDWOOD CREST - Cape May Beach Patrol Lieutenant Zack Baron was sipping from a water bottle Friday while leaning against a truck, sweating arms resting against the open passenger's side window, legs quivering.

Fifteen minutes earlier, he had won the men's box-paddleboard event at the Cape May County Lifeguard Championships. Remnants of Tropical Storm Elsa had made the event even more grueling than usual. Baron, 28, and the other nine competitors were forced to power over and through five-foot waves to the first buoy, paddle parallel to shore, try to catch a wave to ride to the beach, then drop their boards and sprint 100 yards through the sand to the finish line.

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"You always want to catch that one, huge wave and I was able to do that," Baron said. "There were some big sets coming in and I caught one. But you still need to do that run at the end and that's one of the toughest, most gut-wrenching things things you can ever do. You've used every muscle in your body to get through the ocean, then you're forced to use your legs."

A couple of friends rushed up to the truck and doused Baron with beer in celebration. The foam streamed down his face, wiping away tears.

Baron, 28, had earned his first victory in seven appearances at the County's, which are held at Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol Headquarters at Rambler Road. It marked his first race without his father, Victor Baron, who passed away May 18.

"He never missed one of my races," Zack said. "And I have no doubt he saw this one, too. This one was for him."

Baron was part of a changing of the (life) guard at the event.  The exception came in the final event, where Wildwood Crest's five-person surf dash relay - Pat Bakey, Sophia Jurusz, Jake Klecko, Luke Love and Brett Pederson - won for the second straight time to help the host patrol repeat as team champions.

It started with the men's doubles row, where Sea Isle City's Danny Rogers and Pat Scannpieco caught a late wave to edge Wildwood Crest's Bakey and Klecko, and Avalon's Erich Wolfe and Jack Glomb.
Rogers and Scannpieco were in the race for the third time as a crew. Scannpieco was rowing for the 10th time

"I've always wanted to win this race and I finally did it," Scannapieco said. "It's an awesome feeling."

After Baron's victory in the men's paddleboard, Avalon rookie lifeguard Dolan Grisbaum, 17, registered a convincing victory in the open box swim. Grisbaum, a former standout distance swimmer at Ocean City High School, is headed to Boston University in the fall to swim for the Terriers.

Wildwood Crest's Adrienne Bilello won the women's box swim for the first time, then returned to the ocean just minutes later to take fourth in the women's box paddleboard. Cape May's Kennedy Campbell won that event, which resulted in congratulatory hugs from fellow lifeguards and friends while she clapped and jumped for joy.

Cape May Point Captain Ben Swan saw his 11 years of experience pay off with a thrilling win in the singles row. Swam and two other rowers were even as they approached the beach. Swan guided his boat onto the face of a wave, dipped an oar in the water to serve as a rudder, and guided it to shore while others spun in the foam.

"I caught a great wave at the end and was lucky I didn't turn sideways," Swan said. "Luck has a lot to do with winning this. Once I got on the wave, I moved to the back of the boat, stuck out an oar, and hoped for the best."

The streak of first-time winners ended in the final event, where Wildwood Crest repeated as champions in the five-person surf dash relay.

As storm clouds started to roll in from the bay, the large crowd lined up 20 deep on the sides of the course to watch what is the most exciting event in lifeguard racing.

One by one, competitors sprinted into the water, high-stepping through the surf, then porpoise-diving to a chest-high buoy before reversing course, sprinting back to shore to tag a teammate before collapsing on the sand.

Klecko, whose uncle Joe (New York Jets) and cousin Dan (Patriots, Colts, Eagles) played in the NFL, essentially clinched the victory for Wildwood Crest. The 23-year-old former rugby player at West Chester University ran the second leg for the team and opened up a 20-yard lead on the field.

"I think it's the best event by far," Klecko said. "The race is so short that anything can happen, and then you have the crowd yelling and cheering. The intensity just skyrockets."

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