With hundreds of miles of coastline and a beach-loving population, Long Island can never have too many lifeguards patrolling its beaches. Luckily, junior lifeguarding programs across the Island, such as the Jones Beach Junior Lifeguard Program, are training youngsters ages 9 to 17 in physical fitness and lifesaving techniques in anticipation of them gaining oceanfront positions when they come of age.

According to Jay Liegey, captain at Robert Moses Field 3 and head of the Jones Beach Junior Lifeguard Program, Jones Beach used to have to give its lifeguard test two or three times per summer in order to have enough staff on their beach patrol. Now, with the junior program feeding into jobs, that’s no longer necessary.

“The administration and the [New York State] Park Service know that this is a viable thing for them to keep,” Liegey said of the program.

At its inception in 1998, 15 youngsters participated in the program. Today, that number exceeds 300, and has helped alleviate a lot of the pressure on Long Island’s beaches to find guards who can properly protect the public.

About 50 percent of juniors go on to become lifeguards, Liegey said.

Joseph Tonna and Michaela Rutigliano at the Jones Beach Junior Lifeguard Tournament on July 19, 2017. Photo Credit: Leigh Anderson

Not only do the young people basically have a summer job guaranteed in the future, he explained, but they’re also providing a service to the public, they’re in touch with nature, and they understand the importance of keeping the beaches and oceans clean.

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The program holds practices on eight Sundays throughout the summer, in which youngsters are trained in running, swimming and rescuing drills that mimic what lifeguards do to earn their certifications. They also have the opportunity to try out for the Jones Beach Junior Lifeguard Competition Team, which allows them to compete locally and nationally against other teams and guards-to-be.

Joseph Tonna, 13, has only been swimming for five years, but his speed blew away the competition in the run-swim-run event at the Jones Beach Junior Lifeguard Tournament on July 19. The run-swim-run includes a footrace on the shoreline into the water, an ocean swim around two buoys, and another footrace to the finish line after making it back to shore.

Tonna has been participating in junior lifeguarding competitions for two years, in addition to swimming for the Team Suffolk Swim Club.

“I want to help people and this really helped me,” he said, explaining that the junior program made him realize his passion.

Junior lifeguards enter the water during the rescue race at the Jones Beach Junior Lifeguard Tournament on July 19, 2017. Photo Credit: Leigh Anderson

Tonna credits his coaches for his success and now plans to go forward with his lifeguarding training. As for competing, he will continue to do what he does best: “take off running, get ahead and keep ahead.”

Like Tonna, Michaela Rutigliano, 13, also loves the competitive aspect of junior lifeguard tournaments and has been participating since last year. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, Connor Rutigliano, 18, who is now a Jones Beach lifeguard.

“They definitely help a lot,” she said of the practices and tournaments, “with the test and becoming a lifeguard, the whole process.”

Favoring the events with the most intense competition, Rutigliano prefers “beach flags” -- a lifeguarding spin on musical chairs in which participants must race to capture pieces of a garden hose.

As much as the tournaments are held for the fun of competing, each event involved helps hone skills that are relevant to lifesaving.

“Here, it’s a race,” said Liegey of the rescue race event, for which mock victims swim out to a flag line and wait to be “rescued” by their teammate. “But realistically, it’s a rescue and you’re going to get to the person as quickly as you can.”