If you're a coastal Southern California native, the word “fitness” isn't really part of your spoken vocabulary. Instead, it's a concept felt in the bones, as organic as breath, programmed by sunshine and temperate weather and proximity to surf and trails and snow. “Fit” is not a particular shape or body-fat percentage; it is not a way to look, but rather a way to be - or to be better.
Few typify this mindset like Leslie Schwene. The 25-year-old Lifeguard III for the City of Huntington Beach Marine Safety Division isn't about gym selfies or leg day, yet her athleticism is astonishing, accomplished through a simple dedication to feeling strong and capable. She doesn't work out to get a beach body, though she works in a swimsuit several months of the year. She trains to save your life.
Growing up in Huntington Beach, California, Schwene took to the water before kindergarten. A natural athlete who’s happiest when she’s moving, and a competitive swimmer from age four, she joined the Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguards program at nine - not out of a fascination with ocean rescues, but because her mother insisted. “She told me that if I wanted to go to the beach when I was older without her there to supervise, I had to know how to be safe,” Schwene laughs during a post-swim phone call.
Schwene's spent every summer at the same beach since, and while the stretch of sand remains the same, her skills have increased steadily. What began as her mom’s mandate quickly blossomed into a consuming passion and obvious career. “I went all the way through the Junior Lifeguard program, and I did the captains program, which is kind of a pre-lifeguard summer; you spend the time doing a lot of physical activities, but you also have a chance to shadow the lifeguards in the towers,” she explains. “I did the Captains Corp. for two years, and when I did that, I was like, ‘Wow, I really enjoy this, and I want to do this.’ So when I turned 17, I tried out in March. I made lifeguards, and then I spent that spring in cadet training, and then I lifeguarded that summer. That was my first summer right after I graduated from high school, and I have been doing it ever since.”
It's clear that lifeguarding is a physically demanding job that requires peak fitness to perform - even Huntington's “fun” lifeguarding group event, the Mega Colossus, involves 8.5 miles of beach running and 4,000 yards of ocean swimming - but Schwene’s current position as Ocean Lifeguard III sets her apart. In the staff hierarchy, she is one of the seasonal supervisors. While the Ocean Lifeguard III position does not require the same specialized training as the Marine Safety Officers (MSO), she’s taken it upon herself to continually up a complementary knowledge base. She became a licensed California EMT her sophomore year of college and has also picked up certifications as a Swiftwater Rescue Technician and Advanced Rescue Scuba Diver, among other skills - all of which necessitate as much physical stamina as intelligence.
Schwene is undoubtedly focused and strict in her career performance and development. (“I'm a very structured person,” she admits.) Still, the grin in her voice when she gets to explain what she does for a living is an easy reminder of the kid inside. What Schwene does is hard work, certainly, but she brings an almost meditative element of joy to an otherwise dead-serious profession: She wants to keep people safe out there because ultimately she wants them to have fun. It brings her tremendous gratitude to perform a rescue; when she talks about being out there in the moment, you can hear how honored she feels to be able to save a life, and to do it as part of a crew that is like a family.
Sometimes, she says, “You swim out to the person, and you can see that they're so scared. There's just this fear in their eyes, and it's this - I can't even describe the feeling of, you know, ‘I got to them.’ I got them the buoy, and then just bringing them in, you could just tell, the sigh of relief. There's been a few times where I'll bring them all the way to shore, walk them out of the water, and they'll sit along the lower part of the sand for 20, 30 minutes just catching their breath and relaxing after the situation they were in.
“And those are the moments that I know that if I hadn't been there, there would’ve probably been a different outcome. Like if I or another lifeguard hadn't been in that spot at that moment, the situation could’ve been very different. There've been times where there's, like, four people, and I get them all floating [on a rescue board]. I'm not going to be able to swim four people in. I might be strong and a good swimmer, but that's just too much for one person. So one of my other lifeguards will come out, and they'll usually take two of them. If we have the resources, maybe two others will come out, and we'll kind of share the burden of bringing the people in. Lifeguarding, it's really big into teamwork.”
To stay physically strong enough to calmly manage a situation like that, Schwene imposes a high level of discipline onto herself. A typical lifeguarding day for her packs in more sweat than most people put in with their personal trainer every week - and that’s not even including rescues. “I start my day at five most mornings because I wake up to go swim,” she shares. “It's an hour workout. I usually will get home, shower, then I'll go and do Pilates before my shift starts.”
If there's time to get to the beach early, and the day is nice, she'll go for a paddle, a swim or a surf - not for the fitness benefits, but just because being in the water is such a comfortable, happy place for her.
Breaks during Schwene’s workday might include a run on the sand or a 20-25 minute ocean swim. Somehow, being in near-constant motion manages to energize her for when she needs to burst into action, rather than deplete her reserves. “I work out for swimming,” she shares, “but I also think swimming is fun and I could just be in the water all the time. I'll just go and sit and bodysurf a lot of times just to get that mental break - kind of like a midafternoon pick-me-up, I would call it.”
But when the call comes, Schwene's body automatically pulls up all that swimming and jogging in order to respond to distress instantaneously. It's a fast-twitch muscle play coupled with a need to remain logical, patient and calm no matter the severity of the situation - a natural home for her most impressive qualities.
“There are some times where I'll be a half-mile down the beach and there's someone near the pier that really needs help, so the adrenaline definitely starts going. When I get there, I take my shirt and shorts off, grab the lifeguard buoy and my fins, and go into the water,” Schwene explains. “It's a sprint to the water and a sprint swim out.”
Sprint training is a big part of what enables Schwene to react with the speed critical to saving a life - sometimes more than one at once. Rip currents, rough surf and chilly water, braved without a wetsuit, can further complicate matters, so maintaining a high level of cardiovascular strength is a crucial complement to her explosiveness.
Emergency situations put to the test not only her strength and endurance, but also her emotional control and empathy for victims. “It's a very high-stress situation when you're heading out because you're trying to watch the person, you're paying attention to the waves, you're kind of seeing what else is happening, but your focus is getting to that victim and then swimming them back in,” Schwene says. “I'm paying attention to what the surf's doing around me, holding onto the victim so I don't lose them under a wave. They're probably still stressed and kind of freaking out because of the situation they're in, so bringing them in is usually a bit of a slower process.”
“Communication is a huge part of lifesaving,” Schwene adds, and a couple of years ago she began researching Master's programs in that discipline to continue to build this skill. She'd applied to Georgetown for her Bachelor's, but was declined. “I remember saying to my mom kind of sarcastically, ‘Fine, I'll just go there for grad school,’ you know, as a 17-year-old not really knowing exactly what would happen,” she says. As it happened, her search led her right back there, to the School of Continuing Studies, where she has been enrolled since August 2016 as a candidate for a Master in Professional Studies in Emergency and Disaster Management. By the time she flipped her tassel in May 2018, she had been given the honor of being named part of the 2017 Hoya Professional 30, an honor given by Georgetown that “recognizes and highlights the student professionals who exemplify leadership and excellence”.
Any grad student would be given a pass for putting sweat to the side during the academic year, but that's simply not Schwene's way. She still does swim workouts every morning before classes, even in the gray, cold, dark Washington, D.C., winters, because she knows that not maintaining her fitness is actually dangerous. Seconds count in a rescue situation, and being out of shape when she returns to Huntington in the summertime could mean the difference between life and death for a victim.
“I could just stay in my apartment and not go [work out] because I have to take the Metro to get to the campus where I swim,” she admits, but instead she mixes about 2 miles in the pool five or six days a week with group fitness classes, Pilates on the Megaformer and, recently, running. When we spoke, she was preparing for a 10-mile race that will in turn get her ready for her first half-marathon back in Huntington next February. Which is a great time to be in peak shape, as her annual re-qualification for lifeguarding - completing a 1,000-yard pool swim in under 15 minutes -- happens in the same month.
Pushing her body to do more, and do it more efficiently, every day, isn't just about a paycheck for Schwene. It's the almost spiritual gratification she gets from knowing that staying in peak shape can make a significant change in the life of a stranger. “I'm not expecting people to come up and say thank you to me after rescuing them,” she says, “because that's just what I do. [It's] the fact that I get to see the people that I rescue and see that they have been able to enjoy the rest of their day at the beach, or we found the lost kid and reunited them with their family. I helped this person who got injured, and we got them sent to the hospital and got whatever happened dealt with. It's really that tangible difference I'm making in people's lives that I love.”
All photos by Jack Antal.
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