Perhaps it’s something in the sand here or in the tradition and excitement that surrounds the culminating event of the annual Main Beach Lifeguard Tournament, where training for beach flags begins months earlier in training sessions from Ditch Plains to Georgica, and Sagg Main to Ponquogue Beach.
The event is a musical chairs, of sorts, where participants are eliminated one-by-one as they dive for a diminishing number of flags following an all-out sprint through the sand. Beach flags is a specialty among lifeguards from the Hamptons Lifeguard Association, which sent nearly 100 members to Virginia Beach last week to once again flex their muscles at the annual United States Lifesaving Association National Championships.
“Even before junior lifeguarding took hold, on any given night at the Main Beach tournament, where beach flags is a tradition, you’d have a national champion or past national champion in the pit on both the girls and guys side,” said Eric Bramoff, who won the men’s open national championship in beach flags in 2003. Bramoff has trained lifeguards in beach flags for years, and is also the athletic director for the Sag Harbor School District, where a new generation of talented swimmers and lifeguards has developed.
“We have this tradition built now,” Bramoff said. “On any given weekend, you have junior lifeguard programs running from Ponquogue to Montauk.”
The Hamptons Lifeguard Association, or HLA, finished sixth overall out of 33 teams in the adult division with 233.75 combined points, behind Los Angeles County, which ran away with the competition with 1,244.252 points. Monmouth County, Virginia Beach, Outer Banks and California State rounded out the top five.
The junior lifeguards from HLA had another outstanding performance, with about 50 children ages 9 through 18 dominating some events — like beach flags — and finishing extremely well in others. “We have one of the best showings every year,” Bramoff said. “We literally move an army down there.”
The highlight of the weekend in the adult division was East Hampton native Amanda Calabrese winning her fourth straight open championship in women’s beach flags, which is the most among women in the history of the competition. Calabrese, along with Bramoff and other past national beach flags champions like Emily Ward, Rachel Faraone and Lucy Kohlhoff, have set the stage for decades of standout performances by HLA lifeguards in that event.
“We’ve always been strong in beach flags, it’s kind of a Long Island tradition,” Calabrese said after returning home this week. “I have this feeling that USLA changing beach flags to an ultra-hyped-up night flags setting has made the younger kids who stay and watch more motivated to succeed, in hopes that one day they’ll be in that pit.”
Sister and brother Lila and Val Ferraro won the U19 beach flag competitions for HLA during the junior lifeguard tournament but that was just the beginning of the success. Lizzie Neville and William Schlegel won their respective divisions in the 14- and 15-year-old age group, and Evan Schaefer won the boys 9 through 11-year-old group.
Of the top 11 finishers in the U19 beach flags competition for girls, seven were from the HLA, including Lila Ferraro, the winner, and Katarina Dombrowski (fifth), Molly Mamay (sixth), Kelsey Vela (seventh), Abby Nanci-Ross (eighth), Patricia Haggerty (ninth) and Oliva Brabant, who finished eleventh.
Boys who followed Val Ferraro’s lead were Albert Dombrowski, Emilio Espinoza, Owen McCormac, Colin Schaefer, Luke Rossano and Luke Castillo, who all placed in the top 10 of their respective divisions in beach flags. In the girls’ competition, Sophia Swanson, Julia Erickson, Corrina Castillo, Darcy McFarland, Lyla Wilson, Alyssa Brabant, Ryleigh O’Donnell, Melina Sarlo, Ally Schaefer and Kerri O’Donnell all placed in the top 10 in beach flags.
“When you’re a kid you get a flag, that’s great. But if you don’t, you get a Chipwich, which is sometimes even better,” joked Bramoff, who finished second in beach flags among 40 to 44-year-olds, missing out on his second straight age-group national title by three-inches. “When this all started it was just a couple of us doing beach flags. And now we’re coming with full force.”
Other national champions in the junior division included Luke Castillo, in the distance run and board race, and Chasen Dubs, in the surf swim race. Pierson’s Joey Badilla and Kevin Pineda teamed up to win a national title in the Rescue Race – JG among 14 and 15-year-olds, while Nicky Badilla and Rodin McKenna won the same event among 12 and 13-year-olds.
“I would say our junior program has become top in the nation,” said John Ryan Jr., East Hampton Town’s head lifeguard. “We train these kids, and we teach these kids, and they don’t even know it, but they are learning how to be good in the ocean. We run it through games, but the confidence they gain from the program itself makes them amazing lifeguards.
“Our role is to get these kids to the line and tell them they are number one and make sure they believe it,” he added. “Whether they finish first or last doesn’t really matter.”
In the adult divisions Ryan Paroz, an HLA guard from Australia, won the open men’s board race, and also finished third in open surf ski race and was fifth in the open men’s ironman. Vanessa Edwards won the women’s 2K beach run and beach flags in the 60-64 age group. Chasen Dubs, a former East Hampton resident who now lives in Florida, didn’t win anything, but consistently placed among the top lifeguards in the country.
“He’s swimming in Florida, but when he competes he’s an independent because he refuses to join a different agency,” Ryan said proudly. “He has a love for HLA and he doesn’t want to join anyone else. He’s become a world class athlete, like Amanda and like Ryan Paroz, wo have all fallen in love with our junior lifeguard program.”
A handful of lifeguards from Southampton Town, led by head lifeguard Sean Crowley, join with East Hampton Town to form HLA, and a number of the top swimmers in the junior program hail from Pierson High School, something Bramoff was particularly proud of.
“I’m very proud that Coach Crowley and a lot of former Pierson Whalers and current Pierson Whalers are into this,” he said. “Being the athletic director at Pierson, and going to this tournament, is so enjoyable because my students and my athletes become my teammates for a day. It’s a very unique experience.”