Santa Cruz lifeguard Sae Ackerstein
Santa Cruz’s Sae Ackerstein is headed to Texas this week for an international competition.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Forged by chilly waters (and some tears), recent Santa Cruz grad heads to international surf rescue competition

Santa Cruz High graduate Sae Ackerstein, whose junior guards experience was the subject of a Lookout opinion piece that caused some social media ripples earlier this year, is off to Texas this week, where with Soquel High senior Madalyn “Munchie” Price she will compete with Team USA at the International Surf Rescue Challenge.

On a foggy Tuesday morning earlier this month, Sae Ackerstein, 18, pulled her wetsuit up over her shoulders and picked up her 19-foot long surfski from the shore on Cowell Beach.

“This is a newer Expedition,” she said about the long and narrow kayak-like craft. “This one is really, really tippy. It’s really fast.”

She put the surfski in the water, sat in it and rapidly started paddling over the waves just before they broke. She appeared to glide across the water’s surface.

While Ackerstein, who joined Santa Cruz Junior Guards at the same beach 12 years ago, felt right at home in that moment, she was also imagining how in just two weeks she would be competing against some of the best youth surf-rescue athletes in the world in less-familiar waters.

Starting Wednesday, the recent Santa Cruz High School graduate, alongside Soquel High School senior Madalyn Price (who goes by the nickname Munchie), will be competing in the International Surf Rescue Challenge against youth teams from Japan and South Africa. They’re two of just three California girls to qualify for the youth national girls team to compete in the annual competition in South Padre, Texas, a barrier island along the Gulf Coast.

“I’m really excited to go with the whole team and be part of the national team, because that’s something I’ve looked up to doing for a really long time,” said Ackerstein. “It’ll obviously be super cool to race with different countries — that’s just such a rare experience to have.”

Santa Cruz lifeguard Sae Ackerstein
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Every two years since 2005, the competition has invited the best surf lifesaving athletes to compete. Originally from Australia, surf rescue or surf lifesaving is competitive lifeguard skills that build on what many know of as junior guards — a summer program that teaches kids how to navigate tough ocean conditions, use basic rescue techniques, surf and other water sports.

The competition’s events will include sprinting, surfski races, paddleboard races and beach flags — which involves participants starting from a prone position before jumping up and running down a beach to grab a flag in the sand.

Ackerstein, who will start her marine biology studies this year at UC San Diego and compete on the school’s rowing team, hopes to help develop the surf rescue community locally. Over the past couple of years, as she’s grown more dedicated and competitive, she’s found it hard to train because the sport is still small, nationally and locally. She primarily trains alone and on occasion will train in Southern California, where surf lifesaving is more popular.

“It’s honestly so, so hard to motivate myself to go do my workouts every day,” she said. “I’m doing them by myself in the freezing cold while I’m watching YouTube videos of all the Australians in their groups of 20 at their big fancy clubs where it’s nice and sunny out and they have all this super nice equipment, and all this fancy stuff.”

Ackerstein hopes that by building the community locally, others won’t have to train alone like she did. With her dad, she started the West Cliff Surf Lifesaving Club this past summer and trained about 15 youth twice a week.

Santa Cruz lifeguard Sae Ackerstein
Sae Ackerstein started West Cliff Surf Lifesaving Club this summer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m always amazed when she’s able to rally to train under these conditions,” said her dad, Dan Ackerstein, while watching her that early September morning.

He recalled how when Sae was young, she was small and timid — very unlike the athlete he watched riding the waves on the 19-foot surfski.

“She was just a tiny little mouse. We used to call her mouse because she was very quiet,” he said. “And she was not a very athletic kid.”

He said one of his fondest memories was watching her transform from the 6-year-old who cried every day when he left her for her first week of junior guards at Cowell Beach to the “happy as a clam” 6-year-old who “didn’t want to leave the beach.”

This past June, Dan Ackerstein wrote an opinion piece for Lookout about the junior guards program to celebrate his daughter’s accomplishments and highlight the city-run program’s success. While he says he received messages of support, his piece also inspired a backlash on social media, including a rebuttal from another reader, who said it was “never OK to make your kids cry every day.”

“I thought it was very Santa Cruz for there to be a controversy over something that is not even remotely controversial,” he said. “I was a little bit bummed that it took attention away from the sport.”

He said he wrote the piece to highlight a city-run program that had a great impact on his daughter’s life, and his life.

Sae Ackerstein said she didn’t know her dad was writing the opinion piece, and that she read the whole thing without knowing he wrote it.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow this is so cool, I wonder who this parent is? This seems really awesome. I’d love to applaud this parent.’ Then I went back up to the top and I was like, ‘Oh, Dan Ackerstein. I’m the child.’”

Ackerstein said she felt that people who didn’t understand her dad’s piece were blowing things out of proportion.

“I’m also like my family. My whole family, but especially me, is very tough love,” she said. “If you cry, get over it. That sort of thing.”

It’s that kind of grit that has pushed Ackerstein through those cold, foggy morning solo workouts the past couple of years to get her to the International Surf Rescue Challenge this week.

As of Monday night, Ackerstein wasn’t 100% certain which races she would be competing in besides paddleboard and surfski events. She’ll also likely compete in other events as part of a relay team. Munchie is likely to compete in sprinting races as well as relays.

“It’ll be life-changing,” Ackerstein said of the competition. “Hopefully I’ll make some friends and go on a trip to South Africa or something.”

Santa Cruz lifeguard Sae Ackerstein
Sae Ackerstein on the water off Cowell Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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