Fourteen years ago, John Ryan Jr. took eight kids down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to show them something new. When his daughters, Haley, Shannon and Mary Kate, along with Thomas Brierley, Matt and Brock Lownes, and Mikayla and Trevor Mott set foot on the sand for the United States Lifesaving Association Junior Lifeguard National Tournament, they were quite literally small fish in a big pond — or ocean, to be exact.
Ryan, who has been the chief of East Hampton Town Lifeguards for decades, remembers the reaction of one of his daughters when she emerged from the ocean after a swim race.
“I remember her telling me, ‘One of the girls swam on top of me!'” Ryan said. “And I told her, ‘Welcome to competition! People will be grabbing you and pulling on you and you need to get out in front or get out to the side, and you have to kick hard, because if you kick hard, they can’t grab you.’ They were in shock about how competitive and tough it was.”
It turned out to be a formative moment for that small group, and for the junior lifeguarding program in East Hampton. Haley Ryan, now in her 20s, runs the Nipper Guard program, which serves as a feeder program for junior lifeguards for young children, and she’s also assistant chief in Amagansett for East Hampton Town Lifeguards; Brierley is still involved in guarding as well, serving as assistant chief in Montauk. All eight of those original competitors went on to further success in lifeguarding and swimming as well. And the program has exploded in the years since they were a tiny contingent representing a town whose presence probably didn’t even register with big-name programs like Los Angeles County and Monmouth County teams.
Now, the Hampton Lifeguard Association is a force at national tournaments, on par with those powerhouse teams, with adult and junior lifeguards from both East Hampton and Southampton Town making the yearly trek to nationals. The event was canceled last year because of COVID, but on August 4-7, the HLA brought a large group of adult and juniors guards to compete on South Padre Island in Texas. The HLA took home a third place finish, its highest ever placement, and the juniors were a force as well, taking gold, silver and bronze medals in dozens of events. In the junior division, teams scores aren’t tallied, but Ryan said that if they were, the HLA junior team “probably” would have won it all.
While the medals and high placements are a point of pride, they’re never the end game for Ryan and the other adult lifeguards from the HLA who volunteer their time as coaches for the junior guards in the heavily attended programs that are run across the East End throughout the summer. Ryan said the competitions serve as a “carrot” to help motivate kids to learn about ocean safety and awareness, a key component in Ryan’s ultimate goal — to “drownproof” the community. The success of the junior program also helps ensure there will be a steady pipeline of lifeguards to staff the ocean beaches and keep the community safe.
Rising to the challenges at Nationals provides the kind of confidence both adult and junior lifeguards need to perform at the peak of their abilities and to improve their skills. And the tournament on South Padre Island this year provided quite a test, with high temperatures, hot sand, and challenging surf conditions over the course of several days.
In the Open division, longtime HLA standout Amanda Calabrese won the national title in women’s beach flags, taking the title for the fifth time in the open division. That victory made her the winningest female beach flags competitor in USLA history. Teammate Bella Tarbet was fourth overall. In the women’s Open taplin relay, Calabrese, Kiley Kaiser, Olivia Duca and Sophia Swanson finished third. The taplin relay consists of a swim, a beach run, a surf ski (boat) leg and a surf paddleboard leg.
In the Open women’s 2K run, Olivia Duca finished third overall, and in men’s beach flags, the HLA had two top-10 finishes, with Riley Corcoran taking sixth and Connor Grauer finishing eighth. In the Open landline rescue, Ethan McCormac, Sophia Swanson, Connor Grauer and Paige Schaefer finished second.
In addition to the adult lifeguard division, there was also a U19 division and the junior competition which was separated into three age groups — A, B, and C.
In the U19 division, Owen McCormac won boys beach flags, while four other HLA teammates finished in the top 10. Bella Tarbet led a group of four girls in the U19 beach flags division who finished in the top 10, taking second. Olivia Duca won the U19 girls distance run.
In the ‘A’ group for juniors, which includes children ages 13 to 14, Brodie Schneider won beach flags, and was one of six HLA juniors in that event to finish in the top 10. In the girls beach flags in that age group, Ryleigh O’Donnell was second and Khalila Martin was third. In the ‘A’ group distance run, Brodie Schneider and Luke Castillo finished one-two, and for the girls in that same event, HLA swept the top five spots, with Dylan Cashin taking first followed by Ryleigh O’Donnell, Melina Sarlo, Khalila Martin, and Kerri O’Donnell. Cashin also finished second in the run-swim-run race, and teamed up with Luke Tarbet to take second in the rescue race. HLA’s ‘A’ group team of Luke Castillo, Carolina Condon, Luke Tarbet, Luke Ferraro and Dylan Cashin took the top spot in the swim relay.
In the ‘B’ group for ages 11 and 12, Luke Rossano won beach flags, with Evan Schaefer taking second. In girls beach flags, Daisy Pitches was second, Abigail O’Sullivan was third, and Myla Schneider was fourth. Myla Schneider won the distance run, while Liam Knight took first in the boys distance swim. In the girls distance swim, Pitches was first, followed by Lylah Metz in second. Pitches also finished second in the girls Ironguard competition, while Knight won that event in the boys division. Pitches and Knight both won the run-swim-run, and also teamed up to take first in the rescue race. The team of Knight, Pitches, Lylah Metz, and Benjamin and Abigail O’Sullivan took second in the swim relay.
In the ‘C’ group, for ages 9-10, Austin Schneider won boys beach flags, with two other HLA competitors finishing in the top five. Ashlyn O’Donnell was second in girls beach flags and second in the distance run, and in the boys distance run, Austin Schneider and Nathaniel Tarbet finished one-two. That duo also did well in the distance swim, with Tarbet taking second and Scheider finishing third. Tarbet and Schneider also finished one-two in the Ironguard event, and Lucy Knight took second in girls Ironguard. Tarbet and Schneider were second and third in the rescue board race, and also second and third in the run-swim-run race. They teamed up to take second in the rescue race, and were part of a winning swim relay team along with Lucy Knight and Tyler Metz.
Seeing so many HLA competitors take home medals, and seeing the size of the cheering section every time an HLA guard was in an event, was an indication of just how far the program has come over roughly a decade and a half. Ryan said he’s appreciative of the support and buy-in from Southampton Town lifeguards and officials as well, including Sean Crowley and Southampton Town Parks and Recreation Director Kristin Doulos, who have helped create a synergy between the two junior programs. There are plenty of lifeguards and officials from East Hampton Village beaches who are also a big part of the team.
Ryan had one interaction at the tournament that gave him an indication of just how far his program has come, and the way the HLA guards are viewed by other competitors, in particular. He said he was approached by a woman associated with the Los Angeles County team — the powerhouse squad that typically takes first place with double the number of points of the second place team. She was questioning whether or not one of their adult lifeguards was qualified to be part of the HLA team. After Ryan reassured her that he was, in fact, employed as a lifeguard in East Hampton, he asked her why she was so insistent on trying to confirm that fact.
She admitted that the HLA team was pretty intimidating. Whether or not she meant it this way, Ryan said he considers that a compliment.