Junior guards on the sand at Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz
Junior Guards take to the water at Cowell Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Junior Guards joy: Why making my daughter cry every day was one of the best decisions of my life

“The best day of 2023 came and went unnoticed by most of the city 13 days ago,” says Santa Cruz dad Dan Ackerstein. That’s because on June 12, the Junior Guards program to teach kids ages 6-17 water rescue skills began in the city of Santa Cruz. Similar programs exist in other parts of the county and propel kids to state, national and international competitions. Ackerstein calls Junior Guards “the most ridiculous, difficult, important and remarkable things about Santa Cruz. It’s basically a rite of passage for many families, including, now, mine.”

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The summer after my daughter turned 6, she graduated kindergarten, learned the backstroke, and cried every morning for a week.

She cried because making first graders do calisthenics and run laps in hot sand is unthinkable in many corners of the parenting universe. She cried because she was suddenly being told to do — not asked to do — things that were hard, uncomfortable, and indelibly valuable.

She cried, of course, because the Santa Cruz City Junior Lifeguards program is one of the most ridiculous, difficult, important and remarkable things about Santa Cruz. It’s basically a rite of passage for many families, including, now, mine.

When she stopped crying, as almost every junior guard soon does, my daughter found a place, a community, a sport, a career and a path that changed the course of her life.

Today, she is 18, a lifeguard and JG instructor and off to college at UC San Diego.

The best day of 2023 came and went unnoticed by most of the city 13 days ago.

But for parents on the Westside and much of Midtown, June 12 marked the official beginning of summer — the joyous parade of red Junior Guards sweatshirts on foot and bicycle pulsing through neighborhoods. Like blood pumping toward the city’s heart, the sweatshirts donned by kids ages 6-17 converge every day until Aug. 4 on Cowell Beach for three hours of exercise, play and work, all focused on living safely beside the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Since 1966, Santa Cruz City has been the home of Northern California’s largest junior lifeguard program, with about 1,000 kids every year. There is also a state junior lifeguards program, which offers training at Manresa, Twin Lakes and Rio Del Mar beaches, and the vaunted Capitola JG program, City’s longtime (friendly) rivals.

The concept behind junior lifeguards is brilliant: give kids a fun, challenging and social way to learn how to be safe in the waters of Monterey Bay, and how to keep their friends and neighbors safe as well.

The Pacific Ocean is serious business.

Yes, it offers beautiful views and exceptional wildlife. But our shores also bring big waves, strong currents, collapsing cliffs and other hazards. Danger is an unfortunate, and omnipresent, part of the landscape.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, California averages over 400 drowning fatalities every year; our own community has suffered losses this year in the cold waters of the bay. In March, we mourned the heartbreaking death of 18-year-old Indianna Clark, who went out for a midnight swim with a friend at Its Beach and drowned. And in May, Srinivasa Murthy Jonnalagadda, 44, of Sunnyvale died trying to rescue his 13-year-old son, who got caught by a wave at Panther Beach north of Santa Cruz.

Such terrible, permanent tragedy.

Growing up among these hazards requires awareness, understanding and preparation. To me, junior lifeguards is the city’s forward-looking, proactive response to those realities. It’s how we parents help protect our kids and our community. At least a little.

But getting 1,000 kids to the beach to run sprints and do pushups requires more than parents nervous about rip currents; the genius of the SCJG program is that it conceals the medicine of ocean safety in a thick syrup of sport and play.

Racing and competition are the lifeblood of the program — junior guards compete in running, swimming, paddling and dozens of combinations. Competitions start here at Cowell, but open the door to events around California, on the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S., and even the shores of Europe, Australia and South Africa. Competition took SCJGs to Biarritz, France; Riccione, Italy; and Newport, Australia last season; this summer racers will work toward events in Virginia, Poland and Belgium.

Santa Cruz kids don’t just compete; we win. Last year, SCJGs brought home seven state championships, nine national championships and two victories at the World Rescue Cup.

For some, training and competition is just the beginning; since the program began in 1966, hundreds of junior guards have gone on to become lifeguards up and down the California coast. Stop by any city lifeguard tower this summer and you’ll almost certainly find a former JG watching over the shoreline.

And you’ll find plenty of JG legacies on the beach this summer. Chance meetings chasing a tennis ball in the shorebreak or sharing a paddleboard voyage to Steamer Lane have led to a number of second-generation junior guards in the program today. Dara and Colin Herrick met as teenage instructors; today Dara is a city fire captain and Colin just hung up his fins after years as JG lieutenant; their three kids are all JGs this summer.

It’s not all business with the guards, despite the no-nonsense approach. Every day offers a healthy dose of play as well. No junior lifeguard week is complete without “garbage ball,” “mega-Monday,” “lily pads” and a host of other games, activities and adventures.

Sandbar at Cowell? Everything goes out the window and the kids surf until the day is over.

For me as a parent, eight weeks of sandy floors and voracious appetites is worth it; my kids are learning how to be safe and smart around that powerful ocean outside our door. They’re learning how to keep themselves out of trouble, and how to help others who make unsafe or unthinking choices.

Guards is not easy. Sitting out isn’t an option.

Instructors push in ways kids aren’t often pushed these days. Instructors hold them accountable. Our kids come home different after a summer of JG, and I’m regularly amazed to see the confident, responsible, peer-leader young adults who head down to Cowell each morning.

For my family, with one JG Instructor and one “A” division junior guard, the signs of summer — red bathing suits hanging from every hook in the bathroom, the scent of sunscreen indelible in the house and never-ending discussions about workouts, waves and water temperature — all originate with Junior Guards.

And by the time mid-August rolls around, I know there will be tears in my house again. This time, it will be because summer is ending and Junior Guards is another 309 days away.

Dan Ackerstein is a 15-year resident of the Westside of Santa Cruz, patiently awaiting “local” status while raising two daughters, running a small business and volunteering with the SCJG Booster Club.