Following in his father’s sandy footprints, Hayden Hemmens became a summer lifeguard and outcompeted adults while still in high school.
It was a lifelong goal the son had, to be like his father – a fast rescuer of floundering victims in the ocean’s choppy waters. Not just a savior to those in need, but a winner, too.
The boy would watch his father compete in swimming and lifeguard competitions, himself playing in the waves for untold hours, drinking in the sunlight.
Hayden’s favorite events
•Freestyle 200 meters
•Backstroke 500 meters
•Individual medley, 200 meters, 400 meters
•Distance swim 400 to 500 meters
“The history of my dad (lifeguarding) is one of the things that gets me really excited,” Hayden said.
So he asked his father, Patrick, and his mother, Deanna, a 1996 U.S. Olympic kayaker, to enroll him as a junior lifeguard at Newport Beach.
He threw himself into the job. When he was about 12 years old, he brought an extra backpack to help clear trash on the beach.
Such zeal earned him the Bobby Burnside award, an honor given to the most outstanding junior lifeguard in California.
That helped feed the itch. So did the swimming lessons he had at the Newport-Mesa YMCA.
That’s where he learned to be fast.
“They teach them from 6 years old: technique, technique, technique,” Patrick said. “Then later when they get bigger and stronger their speed will come.”
It didn’t take long before the father knew that his son had a special touch in the water.
The boy was 14 years old when the father, his own youth a distant memory, challenged his son to a race. The pair made their way out 200 yards in the ocean before racing back to the beach where Deanna kept a close eye on the finish line.
“He kicked my butt,” Patrick said. “He beat me by a long way and I knew then that he was going to be a good competitor.”
That was two years ago.
Since then, the kid has gone to the CIF championships for swimming as a sophomore and is poised to take a dominant role as a junior on the Newport Harbor swim team.
For the summer, at 16, Hayden decided to follow in his father’s footsteps for real and step onto the beach as a firefighter with the Newport Beach Lifeguard Battalion, an arm of the city’s fire department.
He tried out in May, and after 100 hours of training consisting of things including first aid, CPR and a study of beach geography, Hayden was in.
Once they got him, Hayden competed in a regional lifeguard competition. Because he works for the Newport Beach Fire Department, he had to compete with the 18-and-up crowd.
He won the 400 meter distance swim anyway.
But the job isn’t all about speed.
“After you make five or six saves, you get a good feeling knowing you saved someone’s life,” Hayden said. “Every day I get out there scared that a situation comes up that I don’t know how to handle.”
It’s a big responsibility, something his dad said has helped his boy grow. But he’s still a kid, and his father – as fathers tend to do – sometimes worries about the new job.
“I wasn’t worried that he was going to get into any difficulty out there,” Patrick said. “My worry was as a 16-year-old kid that he would (know to) do the right thing.”
The added complications of swimming in the ocean, with rip currents and high winds, sometimes make it harder to spot someone in danger and bring them to safety. Lifeguards at Newport Beach can make 30 or 40 rescues a day if the conditions are bad enough.
“You’ve got a big toolbox and you need to know which tool to use when,” said Boy Mickley, Hayden’s supervisor. “You start out as a blank slate; we’re giving you the basic information, and from there you’re learning every day on the job.”
The first thing a lifeguard needs, Mickley said, is a calm demeanor, the sort that helps others be calm in high-pressure situations.
“If you were talking to him one-on-one, you wouldn’t know how competitive or fast he is. He’s very relaxed and low key,” Mickley said. “Then you put him in the water and you’re like, ‘Wow, that guy’s fast.'”
Starting today, he’ll get a chance to show how fast he is again in the United States Lifesaving Association National Lifeguard Championships in Manhattan Beach.
When he puts his toes into that water, he’ll be fast, and he’ll be sure to stay calm.