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International Surf Rescue Challenge

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After placing at nationals, Port Jefferson residents Garrett Thibodeau and Sandi Woodhead earn spots on Team USA

Sandi Woodhead with her Smith Point teammates. Photo by Steven Sobel

By Clayton Collier

Smith Point lifeguards are known as some of the nation’s best. The beach has not had a drowning within the protected area since the beach officially opened in 1959.

Now two of their squad have a chance to prove they are among the best in the world, competing in the International Surf Rescue Challenge in Australia. Lifeguards Sandi Woodhead and Garrett Thibodeau, both Port Jefferson residents, will be among the competitors representing Team USA at the games in September.

“It means everything,” Thibodeau said. “I’m so honored to be able to represent the United States and compete against the best competitors in the world.”

Garrett Thibodeau, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel
Garrett Thibodeau, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel

Both Woodhead and Thibodeau will compete in the beach sprint, taplin relay, rescue race and beach flags events. The pair qualified for the international contest after participating on Smith Point’s team in the 2015 Nautica/Brown and Brown USLA National Lifeguard Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla., this past weekend.

Smith Point, an eight-time national champion, finished second at the national games for small beaches. Individually, Woodhead finished second in beach flags, while Thibodeau came in fifth. Woodhead also came in first place in the landline rescue event.

She was pleased with how she finished.

“I would have liked to have done better, because I always challenge myself,” Woodhead said. “But I am happy with how I performed and I am definitely proud of how well my team did.”

Their coach and longtime teammate, Mike Barrows, said the Port Jefferson pair both performed well but he expects an even better performance from Thibodeau in the future.

“Garrett was a bit disappointed in his performance,” he said. “However, he did not rest [before] USLA nationals and trained right through it. With proper rest, I’m
assured he could have won a national beach flags title. They will both be ready and race really well in Australia.”

Making it to nationals is no easy task. Woodhead said that out of the 98 lifeguards employed at Smith Point, about two dozen are chosen for the competition. Each morning, the lifeguards must run a 5K in soft sand and perform workouts when they are off the tower.

Sandi Woodhead, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel
Sandi Woodhead, of Port Jefferson, will compete for Team USA in the international lifeguard games. Photo by Steven Sobel

“If you show that you are excelling in these workouts, the captains and chiefs will take notice, and bring you if they believe you will do well on a national level against thousands of other ocean lifeguards,” Woodhead said.

Thibodeau, who is in his 13th year competing, said he has noticed an increase in attention to the games. The beach flags finals occurred at 8 p.m. under floodlights before a large crowd and was streamed live online. Thibodeau said the growing interest helps to pump him up before his events.

“While I always take my events seriously, knowing that there’s going to be more people watching heightens the energy level, and I feed off of that,” he said. “Imagine playing any sport in an empty stadium compared to a packed stadium with fans cheering. The level of play is going to rise.”

Open and Youth National teams coordinator Skip Prosser said the growing attention to the sport is the result of the hard work and effort of a number of people.

“Any excitement or progression in the level of popularity of the sport is surely the work of all those who have ever been involved, specifically those individuals who have worked for many years on the promotion of the sport and continue to do so, without any official USLA title,” he said. “It is with great hope that when my appointment ends, that I can look back and say that I made a difference.”

As a result of the increased interest, Thibodeau has noticed a higher level of competition at the events. As he heads off to Australia with Team USA next month, however, he said the international games have always been a monster all their own.

“You don’t have the luxury of warming up and getting into your groove,” he said. “You’re going against the best from the very first run. You need to be on point out of the gate, or you could be out.”