Monday, June 9, 2014

The Day SMLG Beat LACO in the Ironman Championship Race, by Loyd S. Pettegrew

 First Place Trophy. Courtesy of Loyd Pettegrew

The Day SMLG Beat LACO in the Ironman Championship Race
Loyd S. Pettegrew
The plaque on the wall in my university office has been staring at me for 32 years, and for 6 years before that at Vanderbilt University. Long gone are all the swimming trophies and medals about which I lost interest decades ago. Just this lone symbol of a very special time and event, when after six years of having our butts kicked if not crushed by L.A. County in the Ironman relay, we won decisively. The smallest lifeguard service had beaten the biggest.
Beach lifeguards back then were made up of three classes of young men. First were the watermen who grew up at the beach and knew their way around body surfing, surfing and running. Some had come up through the junior guard program, others like Jim Oppliger, Herb Thacker, Doug Smith, and Mike Doyle before them, were really good surfers. Because they weren’t competitive swimmers, they never led the lifeguard pack in the try-outs, but they were good enough to make the force and brought us important “local beach knowledge.” Collegiate swimmers populated the second group. In the beginning they were from places like Santa Monica City College, UCLA, USC and the like. Larry Raffaelli, who was a scholarship swimmer at the University of Utah, became the pied piper for SMLG to Utah, bringing in the likes of the Shepherd boys, Rummerfield, Troxler and probably some others. The third group was a hybrid of the first two. These guys were collegiate swimmers, who also surfed and knew their way around the beach and a dory. The very best collegiate swimmers usually didn’t cut it in the Ironman. It is this group, for L.A. City, LACO and SMLG, that had the unique skill set necessary for the Ironman Relay.
By mid-June each year, SMLG Captain Jim Richards was plotting a strategy for us to win the Santa Monica Sports, Arts & Recreation “National Lifeguard Championships”— the Ironman Relay. Richards would designate a team based on who was entering ironman individual events like Mike Kent.  In about 1971 a second team of guys who hadn’t been selected as the first team by the brass, beat the first team and Richards conceded the flaw and told us we should figure the team selection process for the following year. Every year since Palma, Ando and I completed rookie school, Richards, Rigby and Johnson would hope for an Ironman win, and every year we let them down.
1972 was different. We set up a tryout that would duplicate the actual race as closely as possible:  it had timed rest between legs just like the race, helping us realize how much rest we would have before the next leg. It also favored sprinters over distance guys because each leg of the Ironman is essentially a sprint.  Ron Richmond was starting his second season at SMLG. He had grown up on the beaches of Maui and had spent time surfing the North Shore. But he was also an All American swimmer and had, with some practice, great facility in a dory. He had his game on and won a spot on the team along with Terry Palma, Steve Saylors, Bill Mount and me. Saylors had been on the team the previous year when Spike Beck and crew crushed us. Steve was an All American swimmer at SMC and one of the very best dory men around. We needed that because in the Ironman, someone has to row twice. If you could win the Long Beach to Catalina dory race in 4-foot chop, two 600 yard in-and-outs through the surf is a piece of cake. Steve was our guy. Bill Mount had never been on the Ironman relay before because while he was arguably one of two best paddlers around (Mike Stevenson being his only true rival), and he was pretty good in a dory, his swimming was just O.K. But Bill was a really competitive guy, and if he set his mind to something, he wouldn’t stop until he did it. So between May and the first week in September, Mount went crazy. He worked out with the UCLA swimming guys and on days off he did two-a-days with them. He also started rowing; I could see him come around the Santa Monica Pier after he was off work and row to Pacific Palisades and back. He challenged Mike Kent, an accomplished rower and swimmer and won the fifth spot. Richmond, Palma and I started a month later because we knew the drill (Palma and I had suffered defeats at the hands of LACO since we finished rookie school in 1967). I was the ringer in the dory.
The Ringer
Unbeknownst to the team, I had spent my childhood summers rowing. My grandfather had a beach house on Carnation Cove in Corona Del Mar and the family would move down there for the summer. At about the age of 8, a neighbor kid got a small boat with an outboard engine to tool around the bay. Well I wanted one so bad, but my mom was very protective of me and after I’d been nagging her for weeks, a small boat showed up at the house. I looked at it, but there was no motor, just a set of oarlocks and oars. For the next 4 summers I rowed myself around Balboa Bay, often fighting wind and tide to get where I wanted to go, sometimes 3 miles down the bay. I got really good at my only mode of water transportation. My mother, as if sensing my later calling, also got me a hollow Joe Quigg paddleboard and before I finally got a motor for my boat, I would paddle across the bay to the Wedge to body surf. My protective mother had no idea how much more dangerous that was than a motor!
By early August, the team started working out, rowing together. I think Chavez put a bug in Palma’s ear when they were out on the boats, and Terry, ever the strategist decided that the big guys should lead off our Ironman. I started ocean swimming under the coaching of Tug Carlton in 1964. I had also been a pretty good freestyle sprinter at BYU. Chavez played the angle that size mattered through the surf and getting a lead on LACO. I would go first at 6’4”and Saylors at 6’3” second; we would row the first dory leg and Steve would then finish the third dory leg with Bill Mount. Palma and Richmond would row the second leg. The Chavez-Palma brain trust convinced us that having big guys through the surf first would get us a lead over LACO and that having Mount finish the paddling would stretch any lead we had. As we got closer to the September 2nd date we had to do more surf exchanges and in-and-outs through waves. This was the high season for south swells and the surf could be a big factor; Beck and most of the LACO guys worked Zuma, where the waves and surf conditions were perpetually more challenging than in than Santa Monica Bay, and they would be in their element.
On or about the last week of August, Chavez called a meeting and reassured Richards, Rigby and Johnson that he thought we were ready and the plan would work as designed. Chavez seldom made promises that he couldn’t keep! A quick aside about Bobby: He was one hell of an ocean swimmer, and one day he saw an opportunity to sucker a new guard into a challenge. We were in Tower 8 one gloomy May Monday with a rookie from Utah (Biff Rummerfield I think), Chavez starting talking about how good a swimmer he was. After a few minutes the rookie, tall, thin and muscular, couldn’t believe that this old, paunchy guy was a good swimmer and called bullshit on Bobby. Chavez seized the opportunity and said: “I’ll tell you what, I’ll bet I can beat you in a swim from here to the pier after work and the loser pays the winner $100. The rookie was on this sure bet like white on rice. What the rookie didn’t know was that Chavez knew a mile swim in the Pacific Ocean in May wasn’t like a 1500 in a pool. The water was still about 63 degrees and by 6 p.m. when they would start, the onshore winds were forecast to climb to 15 knots. Bobby beat the rookie by 50 yards and the rookie coughed up salt water for at least 5 minutes afterward. You would underestimate Bobby Chavez at your own peril. RIP!
The day before the Ironman dawned early. I had the 7-3 shift and the north beach jeep until the beach lieutenant came on at 8. I had already checked out north beach, opened up Tower 8 and patrolled the beach restrooms for any of the flora and fauna who might have spent the night there. About 7:30 I get a radio call from Tom Johnson who said he needed me to come in and talk to him. When I get to headquarters our new dory is sitting out on its trailer and Tom is there with a newspaper photographer, someone from the SM Recreation Department, John Howe and some cutie with a towel wrapped around her. Johnson informs me (never break the chain of command!) that Chief Howe wants a publicity photo of the SMLG Ironman team. It turns out that Saylors was off that day and that Mount and Palma were working the boats at 9. That left only Richmond who was working the 2-man tower by the POP pier and me available for this shot. Ron was brought up to headquarters and we took the dory to the water’s edge, where the newspaper photographer and the recreation publicists were each trying out ideas on the photo shoot. Richmond spoke up and said we were both working and had important other things to do and that we had to get this done in 5 minutes. What resulted was the cheesecake photo that appeared in that evening’s Santa Monica Evening Outlook with Ron and me holding up the dory and Miss Santa Monica giving her best beauty pageant smile for the camera—the things guards have to do to feed the government publicity machine!

Throughout that day and the next, Bill Beattie had to field calls from everyone up and down the SMLG hierarchy to each of us, asking how we were doing, if we were ready to beat LACO and any last minute thoughts or suggestions. The solemnity felt more like an execution than an Ironman race. Mount and Palma were on the boats and so were spared the calls. There was something in the wind that maybe we finally had a chance and everyone was charged up with nervous energy. As was his way, Richards never said anything, he just smiled...but you never knew if that was a good or bad thing because smiling was his habitual affect.
The swell had been building for the previous two days and on the day of the race it was a solid 5 feet, not huge, but challenging, and possibly catastrophic in the dory. None of us got together on race day because there were lots of rescues and everyone was busy. Chavez stopped by my tower once at mid-afternoon and stuck his head out of the jeep, squinted his eyes and just smiled and shook his head yes. At 3 p.m.  I drove back to my place at Topanga Beach for some early dinner and last minute kibitzing with Doug Smith and Topanga residents Paul Lovas and Carl Barlow. About 6:30 I headed to Bay Street where the crowd was building. I waded out to waist high water making mental notes of any holes or ditches. At 7 they started the introductory hoopla and then the musical flags and pillow fight. The Navy Seals brought a team of scary looking guys and we were sure that they had wreaked havoc in Vietnam and had their eyes set on us. You definitely didn’t want to pillow fight these guys because they had that “I’ll die before I give up” look in their eyes. I think they swept that event but the lifeguards split with them in musical flags. I can’t remember if they competed in the Ironman, not that they weren’t ironmen, but they just had different skill sets, and weapons were of no use here. The evening was upon us and the spotlights were turned on.
It was completely dark by now. They announced the Ironman event and our team assembled for a quick last minute strategy huddle. Palma, ever the swim coach and team leader, quickly reviewed the strategy and told us that the number one way we could beat LACO was to catch waves in the swimming and paddling legs and if we were ahead to be very careful of other boats coming out in the dory and to make sure to keep it upright. Just before the start, the surf was averaging 4-5 feet and thumping in the incoming tide. We looked at each other and knew we had to give it our best and make our own luck. Above the din of the crowd I could hear LMLGs biggest cheerleader, Larry Rafaelli, screaming to give it our all.
Then the air horn blew. I led off for SMLG and hurdled by way out to thigh deep water and started dolphining through the waves until the depth made it impossible and I started sprinting. Some 3-footers came through and I just made it under one and kept on swimming for all I was worth. I was first around the buoy but Spike Beck was a close second. I headed back for shore and the third light from the right, put my head down and took 20 more strokes before I raised my head for another look. I could feel the lumps coming in as I got closer to the beach and new a set was coming, so I turned over for two backstroke pulls to spot the swells. There was a big wave starting to form about 30 feet in back of me. I took a gulp of air, rolled over and sprinted as hard as I could—I had to catch this wave and knew I couldn’t yet stand up so I kicked it up another notch and all of a sudden I felt the ocean surface pull back from me and I knew  the wave was about to break.  I just couldn’t stop swimming for fear I might lose it. All of a sudden the top of the wave started to break just behind me so I just kept my head down and planed so I wouldn’t lose it and be stuck treading in deep water while Beck would be passing me by on the next wave.  By this time I needed air in the worst way and raised my head and got a breath and a mouthful of water but was able to stay with the wave. I could feel that my forward motion was decreasing but I kept planed and stayed with the wave as long as possible and finally raised up and felt the bottom. I was in waste deep water so I sunk down and dolphined three times and got up and ran for Saylors who was bending over with his hand outstretched (big targets matter!). I made the tag and looked around. I was first, but Beck had caught a better wave behind me and he was only about 20 feet back.
Steve was off like a scalded rabbit and was able to muscle through the incoming set. Chavez and Palma had been right! He caught even a better wave than I did and doubled our lead. Palma went next and increased the lead to about 50 feet then Richmond also caught a wave, maintaining it. Mount swam the final leg and held a good lead; it was time for the paddle leg. Mount came up the beach on my left side as we had practiced and I was off, trying to extend our lead by paddling while the other teams were still swimming. I took off knee paddling through shallow water and made it through the surf without any big waves hindering me. I settled in to a fast but even rhythm despite the increasing chop, hit the flag at full tilt, pulled the board out, turned it, took three strokes on my stomach and then back up on my knees, heading for that third spotlight. I still had a sizable lead and the other teams had begun to spread out behind me. When I hit the impact area there were no waves to help so I kept stroking until almost to the beach, picked the board up and gave it to Steve and off he went. Steve’s leg was good but there were no waves to help him either. Palma had to roll his board through the first wave of a set gaining ground on the LACO guy (I think Dan Matthies) who got hammered further inside. Richmond got caught a little bit inside on a really big wave, but he sat back on his board so as not to go over the falls and pearl; he pulled it out and rode the whitewater in to increase our lead a little more. Then Mount went and he smoked it through the surf showing why he was about to become the premier paddler in California. On the way in another set was building and Billy kicked it into a higher gear, caught a 5-footer and rode it to the sand on his knees, increasing our lead.
I had the dory positioned in the shallow water, skulling to keep it perfectly perpendicular to the waves as Mount came running up the beach and tagged Steve. Palma kept yelling that we had a great lead and to be conservative and don’t run into any other boats. We went out and back and actually waited for a wave to pass before going into the surf break. I jumped out while Steve turned the boat around for Palma and Richmond. They too took it conservatively, but caught a 2-footer on the way back in and ran down the beach a little. It was finally up to Saylors and Mount to bring it all back home. The surf was building again and they just made it over a 4-footer SLAP! They rowed like men possessed and turned it around and headed home. As they were coming in, the last place dory was going out through the surf line and Saylors had a sharp eye out and told Mount to pull his right oar to the side. Sure enough, that boat rubbed our rail and might have broken both starboard oars had Steve not seen the danger and adjusted. The incident turned our dory parallel to the waves for a minute but Mount and Saylors straightened it back out, took four more strokes and Mount performed a flying leap off the bow and ran up to a winner’s finish. David had finally beaten Goliath!
Raffaelli was jumping up and down, screaming; Howe was turning circles in the sand, Johnson was patting Rigby on the back, Jeff Solomon was beside himself (or perhaps in back of himself if he was doing his dancer pose), and Jim Richards stood motionless with his cat-that-ate-the canary smile on his face.
The same team came together again in 1973, but couldn’t repeat our performance. I had surfed from Biarritz, France to Kenitra, Morocco that winter, finding out I had Type I diabetes, but recovered and worked that summer. Jim Richards was my biggest supporter when the City of Santa Monica wouldn’t let me guard. I owe him a great deal for sticking his neck out. Richmond spent the winter surfing the North Shore and also came back for the summer. Palma was heading to pursue swim coaching in parts east. Bill cemented his role as the top paddler beating Stevenson several times, and Saylors graduated to becoming a permanent lifeguard.  Word on the street was that the LACO boys had also been practicing since June and being the fearsome competitors they always were, they wouldn’t be beaten again by SMLG. In Steve Saylors’ words, “They smoked us!” That was the last summer SMLG was independent of LACO. For two more summers I came back from Ann Arbor for the recheck and a few weeks of guarding, working for Richards at Zuma. I stayed at Topanga Beach with Doug Smith and Paul Lovas during those times, just before the State paved paradise and put up a parking lot…and an LACO lifeguard station.

Note: I received my doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1977, spent six years at Vanderbilt University and have been at the University of South Florida in Tampa ever since, where I’m a tenured full professor of marketing and health communication. I am deeply indebted to Will Maguire for putting me in touch with Steve Saylors, Terry Palma, Ron Richmond, and Bill Mount with whom I have shared this story, asking questions and making corrections and additions as needed. Doug Smith and Larry Raffaelli were also helpful in filling in gaps that I had forgotten. We should all be indebted to Will for setting up and continuing the County Recurrent, whereby the entire LACO family can keep in touch, as well as relive days gone by.
Now, some 42 years later and a continent away, I am still, as Norman Maclean wrote in the last line of A River Runs Through It, consumed by water.
*** Copyright Loyd Pettegrew 2014. All Rights Reserved.  Published here with permission. *** 


Wow!  That was amazing!  Thanks very much, Loyd!  What a fantastic retelling of a great moment for SMLG!  On behalf of our entire readership, thank you for your wonderful recollection.

*** and for the readers new to our blog, please see Loyd's earlier story posted on April 9, 2010 on County Recurrent, entitled, "Blinking At Santa Monica Beach" at:

which in this editor's opinion should be mandatory reading.



Until next time.....

Will Maguire, Editor
"County Recurrent" News

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1 comment:

g Shontah b said...

A great read about those in the ivory towers, or wooden towers at any rate. Strategies can indeed pay-off! Several familiar people from the past and present are mentioned here, although this particular comment is not from a lifeguard. gary bertram