Beach Flags is a True Test for Local Lifeguards

East Hampton Town Lifeguard — and past national champion — Amanda Calabrese snatched victory away from Sophia Kohlhoff in the women's beach flags final at the East Hampton Ocean Lifeguard Tournament at Main Beach last year. Michael Heller photo

When Amanda Calabrese sits down with venture capitalists, trying to convince them to invest in a start-up she’s launched with a Stanford classmate, engineering leakproof tampons for sportswomen and businesswomen, she always faces the same question: “What can you tell me that’s going to make me believe you’re not going to give up?”

She has a well-rehearsed answer.

“I always talk about beach flags,” she says.

The 22-year-old graduate of East Hampton High School made a name for herself as a star in the world of competitive lifeguarding, winning titles in many events at local, regional and national tournaments and traveling the world, from France to Australia, as a member of United States lifeguarding teams. She earned the most notoriety in a niche sport within that subculture that is strange and hard to define and, to many, seems entirely unrelated to rescuing people from drowning in the ocean surf. Beach flags — which, despite the name, does not involve flags — is like a lifeguarding version of musical chairs, and it takes place entirely on the sand. Competitors line up, laying belly down in the sand, facing away from their intended target. When the whistle blows, they must leap up, turn around and make a 40-yard dash toward a row of rubber tubes — usually cut pieces of garden hose, each about the length of a ruler — and dive to grab one. There is always one less “flag” than competitors and the last woman or man standing wins. (Competitions are divided into men’s and women’s divisions and are not co-ed).

It was clear early on that Calabrese was made to be a star in the sport. She has an extremely athletic but lithe build, and is not very tall, which is an advantage in a sport that requires quickness and a low center of gravity. She is that rare person who immediately excels at any athletic feat she pursues. She emerged right away as a standout in the East Hampton Junior Lifeguarding Program, which trains children ages nine to 16 (see sidebar), and first attended nationals with the Hampton Lifeguard Association’s competitive team, which includes adult and junior lifeguards from the East Hampton junior lifeguard program, East Hampton Town and Village beaches and from Southampton Town, in 2009. She went along with her mentor, Emily Bunce Ward. In 2009, Ward won the open national title, and Calabrese was the champion, at 11 years old, in the ‘C’ group, for juniors ages 10 to 11. It was the first of what anyone who was watching knew would be many titles, both in the junior division and beyond as she grew older.

But she did not win again, at either the national or regional level, for another six years.

“I had the nickname “beach flags girl,” and I was working so hard and training so hard, and I just wasn’t winning,” Calabrese said recently, in a phone call from California, just days after she’d graduated from Stanford with a degree in mechanical engineering.

With the encouragement of Ward, as well as veteran lifeguard and 2003 men’s open national champion Eric Bramoff — currently the athletic director at Pierson High School and a longtime beach flags devotee and coach — Calabrese persevered and continued to train. Finally, at the age of 17, in 2015, she won her first national open title, and then proceeded to win three more. Her tale of persevering through that long drought without the title and then going on a long win streak is how she explains her commitment to seeing things through in life, whether it’s pursuing a national beach flags title or achieving a career goal. And they have shown their dedication to passing that along as well.

Lifeguards like Bramoff, Ward, Rachel Faraone — who won two open national titles and served as a mentor to Ward — and Lucy Kohlhoff, who won a women’s open national title in 2013, have been responsible for the cultish obsession with the strange beach sport that has developed on the East End, through the efforts of the East Hampton Junior Lifeguarding Program and others.

Explaining the appeal of the event, both for spectators and competitors, is sometimes as challenging as crafting the physical description of the sport itself. A common thread that emerges when beach flag champions like Bramoff and Calabrese and younger newcomers in the junior program talk about it is how it has instant appeal for those who thrive on intense competition. It is a contact sport in the truest sense of the word. Rounds frequently end with two lifeguards, who both have their hands tightly wound around one stick, sand mixed with sweat and pasted to their zero body fat frames from head to toe, caked on their lips and gleaming torsos, trying to wrestle the flag out of the other’s hands. It is not, as the saying goes, for the faint of heart.

Bramoff was introduced to the sport by his mentor, longtime Southampton Town lifeguard captain Sean Crowley. Crowley had been a standout in the sport for decades during his days as a lifeguard at Smith Point Beach in Mastic Beach, one of the earliest Long Island beaches to adopt the sport, which is believed to have originated in Australia. Crowley said he remembers United States Lifesaving Association president Sheridan Byerly touring the East Coast in the late 1970s to show lifeguards this new event. During his visit to Smith Point, Crowley beat out his fellow guards in a beach flags showdown that day. Over the years, he has finished third in his age group on three separate occasions at nationals. He passed the torch to Bramoff, who, in addition to his national open men’s title in 2003, also won his 40-and-over age group title at nationals two years ago. He also won the men’s beach flags title eight times at the annual East Hampton Main Beach tournament — which draws lifeguarding teams from East Hampton, Southampton, Jones Beach and Smith Point, among others, with some of the best competitive lifeguards in the country; but he pointed out that he was just as frequently, if not more often, runner-up to Smith Point guard Matt Simonton, another beach flags star. Bramoff said that the finals at nationals during the years he was in his prime often were nearly the same lineup of guards who made the finals at the Main Beach tournament, evidence of just how much Long Island had become a dominant force in the sport.

Bramoff, a standout three-sport athlete during his days at Pierson High School who went on to be a multi-sport athlete at Cortland State University, said he took to the sport instantly.

“It’s a fast-twitch muscle kind of sport, and it was made for me,” he said. “It’s high-intensity, and that’s the world I want to operate in. There’s no hiding; it’s mano a mano. It’s awesome.” He also pointed out the fact that most beach flags national champions were college athletes.

After spending more than a decade competing in beach flags and training younger guards in the sport, Calabrese says she’s able to now fully articulate what she loves about it. She says the tactical and analytical elements involved in the competition, which are often underrated or not fully understood at first, appeal to her engineering mindset. She added that the challenge inherent in every lifeguarding event or task is the ability to quickly and appropriately respond to every changing element, which she says has helped her in college and her burgeoning career.

“You have to be the smartest one in there,” she said. “You have to really understand your opponents and what they’re doing and what you’re doing, and your positioning. I find that very exciting.”

It is also a great way to encourage junior guards who may have some initial trepidation about water based events and may need more time to become comfortable in the ocean surf.

“There’s a low barrier to entry,” she said. “Some of the kids who might feel nervous and scared and feel like they can’t do anything, they can say, ‘ok, this is something I can do.’”

Beach flags has also always had natural appeal for athletes who are part of the junior lifeguarding program, like Lucy Kohlhoff.

Kohlhoff, who hails from the Westchester area, was an East Hampton Town lifeguard during summers spent in Montauk with her family. She won a national title in 2013 and was a repeat winner regionally and nationally as well, along with her sister, Sophie, another top-notch beach flagger. Lucy was a natural athlete, a standout soccer forward for her high school, and she says she was at her peak in beach flags at the same time she was excelling on the soccer field, which she says is not a coincidence. She recently graduated from Georgetown University and won’t be lifeguarding this summer, but says her time spent competing in beach flags was incredible.

“If I had one word to describe beach flags, it would be ‘exhilarating,’” she said. “Not only to participate in, but also to watch. It’s a tight community and after competing for a while I got to know a lot of people from all over Long Island, and even the country. People get very emotional so even watching friends and teammates compete, you would get serious rushes of adrenaline.”

There is one question that is frequently asked by spectators who are unfamiliar with the sport and with the training strategies lifeguards employ: what the heck does this have to do with lifeguarding?

Bramoff has an easy answer for that.

“If you look at all our rescues, 70 percent of it is running,” he said. “It’s about that explosiveness and going from sitting on the tower or in the sand near the tower and going from zero to 100 miles per hour. You’re going from sitting in a chair to rescuing someone in a matter of seconds.”

Women lifeguards race for the flags at Main Beach last year. Michael Heller photo

John Ryan Jr., the head of the East Hampton Junior Lifeguarding Program and the chief lifeguard in East Hampton, says he routinely uses a similar version of the sport adapted to the water, tossing tennis balls out into the ocean surf — one less than the number of guards — and having them jump up, run into the ocean surf, and retrieve one.

Aside from having actual practical purposes for training lifeguards and honing their skills, beach flags is just plain fun, for competitors and spectators alike. It is always the last event on the schedule at competitions, often under the lights after dark, and draws the biggest crowds.

“Beach flags is the most spectator friendly sport because everything is happening right in front of you,” he said. “And everything happens in an instant. With swimming races, you can’t even see who is in first until they get out of the water. And everybody wants to be a beach flagger.”

Bramoff is taking July off to spend time with his family, and since taking the athletic director job at his alma mater, hasn’t been able to sit on the lifeguarding chair as much as he used to. But he is still devoted to teaching kids, and he hopes — and expects — that someone will break his status as the only male national champion from the area.

He said he plans on teaching the sport to younger kids as long as he can, and hopes its popularity continues to grow.

“I didn’t start it,” he said. “But I’d like to think that I helped elevate it. And other people have brought it to a whole other level.”

Ward is another lifeguard who helped elevate the sport and its popularity, particularly in the years after Bramoff’s initial success and before Calabrese became a star. She was Calabrese’s primary mentor and took that role to heart — after having been mentored by Faraone — while also still training for big national and international competitions herself. She won the women’s national open title in 2009 and had multiple top-ten finishes at international competition in Japan and South Africa from 2007 to 2009.

Ward spoke about how she would run sprints up the steep sandy hill at Barcelona Neck to maximize her strength and endurance in a sport where competitors are required to continually sprint in back-to-back heats, without much of a break. During those trips to Barcelona Neck, she would bring Calabrese along.

“When she was beating me up the hill at 15 years old, I knew I was done,” she said.

Like those who came before her and after her, the spirit of the sport appealed to her.

“What I loved most about beach flags was the adrenaline,” she said. “I loved how it was a mixture of skill and speed and a little bit of luck.”

The legacy that lifeguards like Bramoff, Calabrese, Bunce and Kohlhoff created and fostered continues to grow. The sport is immensely popular in the junior program. For some, like the Schaefer family of East Hampton, it has become a family affair. All three Schaefer children — Colin, 15, Ally, 12, and Evan, 10 — competed at nationals in Virginia Beach last year. Evan won his age group, Ally was runner-up in her age group and Colin was fifth in his age group.

In continuing with the mentorship theme, Colin has been inspired by East Hampton lifeguard Val Ferraro, who was the national champion in the U18 division last year.

Ally said she looks up to Calabrese, who has celebrity-like status among the East End lifeguarding community, and other older instructors and guards who have seen success in the sport.

All three Schaefer children play multiple sports and say they have a thirst for competition. They described why beach flags appeals to them.

“It’s the adrenaline,” Colin said. “It’s fast. And if you slip up just a little bit, you’re out. There’s actually a lot of technique involved.”

Ally said she and her brothers and friends will sometimes have their own friendly competitions during a regular summer day at the beach. She said she is attracted to it for similar reasons as her older brother.

“I’m a pretty competitive person, and I like contact sports, so I liked it right away,” she said. “When I’m older, I want to keep doing it and keep going to nationals.”

Evan said his win at nationals felt like a bit of redemption, because he had tripped during a local competition and ended up in fourth place.

“At the beginning, I was really nervous because there’s a lot of tough competition,” he said. “So when I won, it felt really great.”