It’s been five years since we’ve seen a lifeguard competition in Sarasota, but Siesta Key Public Beach is hosting this year’s professional lifeguard competition, the 2021 USLA Southeast James P. “Mac” McCarthy Regional Surf Lifesavings Championships. It showboats the brawn and talents of Florida’s best lifesavers.
The two-day event starts around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 21, and on Thursday, July 22, and goes all day. Organizer Robert Martini, a Sarasota County Beach Lifeguard Lieutenant EMT, says they expect about 200 lifeguards from all over Florida to participate in the event. Red tide could cancel the competition but, so far, the concentration of the algal bloom isn’t high on the Gulf side of Siesta Key, and Martini is hoping for a wind from the east.
Winners go to the U.S. Lifesaving Association championships in Galveston, Texas, in August, and the winner there will be invited to represent World Team USA.
Among the 16 events scheduled are surf swimming, board races, surf rescues and board relays. One event held in the afternoon session Wednesday, the singles surfboat competition, involves using a small boat called a dory to navigate markings in the water.
Viewer discretion advised: The male lifeguards often pull up their Speedos into “thongs,” Martini says, so that they can slide easier on the boat bench during turns. Those turns can cause some nasty flesh burns. “Sometimes they get bloody cheeks,” he adds.
While the women tend not to hoist up their suits, Martini says not to miss the women’s double surfboat competition Wednesday morning, where twin sisters Sherry and Shelly Griffith from Fort Lauderdale will try to hold onto their 12-year title.
A crowd favorite is the “Beach Flags” competition. Competitors lay face down on the sand, and when they hear a signal, they jump up to grab a flag planted in the sand about 40 feet away. Much like the game musical chairs, there is one less flag than participants, Martini says, leaving one behind. The event continues until there is a winner. Because of Siesta Key’s powder-like sand, it often means a dust storm, with the victor holding up the flag when the kicked-up sand clears.
Fifteen women will compete in the competition, one of whom is Sarah Cislo of the Sarasota County Beach Patrol Team. Sarasota has the second largest number of competitors, with 12 participants. Volusia County lifeguards are planning on bringing 15 guards to compete.
“Just to watch all these men and women at the top of their game, and to see how physically demanding this job is, is good for the public to see,” Martini says.
The competition will be held by the yellow lifeguard stand, in front of the new sundeck pavilion. Bring binoculars to get a better look at what is going on, especially with the water races. Martini says these competitions are always crowd pleasers.
“These are the people who rescue your loved ones,” he says. “They are strong and very competitive.” Plus, who doesn’t want to look at muscular, tanned bodies on a hot summer beach day?