Extra Points: Rowing remains staple of lifeguard races
Sea Isle City lifeguard Danny Rogers gave one final pull on his oars last August before sailing across the finish line at the annual South Jersey Lifeguard Championships in Longport.
Friends and fellow lifeguards rushed into the water, hoisted Rogers and the boat onto their shoulders, and carried him to the beach to celebrate his victory.
Similar scenes will be unfolding again at the area's lifeguard races this year, starting with Friday's Cape May County Lifeguard Championships in Wildwood Crest and Michael D. McGrath Memorial Lifeguard Races in Longport.
Thankfully, doubles and singles rows will again be part of the races.
The tragic rowing accident that claimed the life of 16-year-old Cape May Beach Patrol rookie Norman Inferrera last August 19 raised questions about the safety and effectiveness of Van Duyne lifeguard boats. That gave rise to an insurance-related debate over whether rowing should still be included in races.
The powers that be recently opted to keep the doubles and singles rows as part of most of the events in the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association race calendar, though the decision came late enough that Cape May was forced to postpone its run-row-swim SuperAthalon for a year.
Keeping rowing in the races was a good decision. A lifeguard event without doubles and singles rowing would be like a BLT without the B and L; an Earth, Wind & Fire concert with only Fire; an outfield with just a centerfielder.
Rowing has been the staple of lifeguard racing in South Jersey since they were first held nearly 100 years ago. The area's oldest event - the South Jersey Championships - began with a doubles row in 1924, which was won by Atlantic City's Harry Yates and Jack Woodworth.
Some local races have no doubt evolved over the years. Friday's Cape May County Championships at Wildwood Crest is arguably the best event on the schedule because of its decision to expand the races to accurately reflect the changing of the (life) guard on today's beach patrols. In addition to the men's rows and swim, the competition also includes a men's paddleboard race, women's swim and paddleboard, and a five-person, coed surf dash relay.
I've campaigned without success in recent years for the South Jersey Championships to be expanded to feature a paddleboard race, plus one or two women's events. To be sure, the all-female races on the schedule - Longport Women's Lifeguard Invitational (July 12), Ocean City Beach Patrol Women's Invitational (July 20), Cape May Point Women’s Lifeguard Challenge (July 27), Bill Howarth Women’s Lifeguard Invitational (Aug. 10) - do a fantastic job of showcasing women's lifeguards talents and abilities. But they deserve the opportunity to join their male teammates in competing for their respective patrols.
Until it changes, I'll make do attending and enjoying the current slate of lifeguard races, starting on Friday when I head to Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol headquarters on Rambler Road for the County's.
You will also find me this summer at the "Big Three" races - Dutch Hoffman Memorial Lifeguard Championships in Wildwood (July 29), the Margate Beach Patrol World War II Memorials (Aug. 5) and the South Jersey Lifeguard Championship (Aug. 12) in Longport.
Longport will be going for its sixth consecutive South Jersey title. The patrol could have a tough time repeating without swimmer Joey Tepper, an Egg Harbor Township High School graduate and current standout at the University of Tennessee who announced his retirement from lifeguard races after last year's victory.
But as long as rowers Sean Duffey and Mike McGrath are in the boat, they have a chance.
Lifeguard racing is as much of a part of summer at the Jersey Shore as beaches, boardwalks and French fries-stealing seagulls.
Large, raucous crowds line the beach to root for their favorites as the sun dips on the horizon. Friends and fellow lifeguards greet each race with loud cheers, including the traditional "Sea ... Isle, Sea ... Isle, Sea ... Isle" chant that erupts before each event. Last year, they were screaming while doubles rowers Rogers and Pat Scannpieco won Cape May County's title.
Memories are made and legends are created each summer. Thankfully, rowing will again be a part of it.