When a devastating injury threatened his nearly 50-year career as a Jones Beach lifeguard, Ed Peters refused to hang up his whistle. Instead, he fought to retain a job and lifestyle he loves, with discipline, determination -- and the help of a friend who swam to his rescue. The challenge began Oct. 20 last year, when a nasty spill during a bike ride on the North Shore left Peters with a broken right hip, right shoulder and a twisted knee. That night at Syosset Hospital, he was inundated with calls and text messages. "What everyone wanted to know was, 'Are you coming back to the beach?'"
There was good reason for the query: At 70, Peters, who lives in Bellmore, is one of the oldest lifeguards in the New York State Parks system and a captain at busy Jones Beach Field Six, where he supervises a squad of 46 younger guards.
"Ed is a testament to what it means to be a dedicated Jones Beach lifeguard," says filmmaker Ron Colby of Los Angeles, a Flushing native and former lifeguard whose 2007 documentary, "The Jones Beach Boys," chronicled this elite corps of lifesavers. "He's serious about it. He remains in fantastic shape, he enjoys it to the fullest and he's an overall good guy."
But praise for Peters guaranteed nothing in terms of the summer job, especially after his accident. Every year, returning Jones Beach guards have to pass a fitness test to get rehired. Those with 10 or more years' experience must swim 100 yards in 1 minute, 20 seconds and run a quarter mile in 2 minutes, 10 seconds. (For guards with less than 10 years' experience, cutoff times are 10 seconds faster in each event.)
Of the 249 lifeguards working Jones Beach State Park this season, 28 are 50 years old and older, according to a union official.
"The swimming public should feel safer with the older guys there," says George Gorman, deputy regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. "The experienced lifeguard sees issues in the water; they see problems develop."
Those concerned about having a senior citizen coming to their rescue might be more at ease knowing how the lifeguards operate. While the typical Jones Beach guard is involved in 15 to 20 rescues each summer, few of them are solo.
"The way we do rescues, we don't work alone," says veteran Robert Moses State Park lifeguard Tom Donovan, 64, of West Islip. "Everything is teamwork, and we have lifeguards from 17 to 70 as part of the team. We all know our role, and we prove this year after year."
Donovan admits the work gets harder as years go by -- even though he, like Peters and most of the older guards -- maintains top physical condition.
MOTIVATIONS TO RETURN
What brings them back year after year? The pay's not bad. First-year hires make about $15 an hour. Peters makes $28 an hour because of his longevity. But more than the money, "There's a camaraderie, there's an incentive to stay in shape. There's also a feeling of self-worth," says Colby, the filmmaker and former Jones Beach lifeguard. "When you work as a lifeguard, and you do save a life, you have a feeling you're doing something that matters."
At age 50, Peters ripped through the lifeguard test like a college kid, clocking 59.2 seconds in the 100-yard swim and completing the quarter mile in just over a minute. This year, it was a very different story. The bike injury led to a total hip replacement; his shoulder and knee would take weeks to heal. In Neptune, Fla., where Peters and his wife, Jean, have a winter home, he devoted himself to rehabbing and preparing for the test. He went to physical therapy, lifted weights, performed pool exercises. Recovery was slow and painful -- something this super-fit senior was not used to when it came to training.
The Washington Heights native started lifeguarding after high school at Rockaway Beach. At St. Francis College in Brooklyn, Peters was a star water polo player. In 1964, he went to the Olympic trials as a team member for the New York Athletic Club; that year, he started at Jones Beach.
As a math teacher, Peters had summers off, which allowed him to keep lifeguarding. In 1997, he retired from Mepham High School in Bellmore but kept his summer job.
This year's qualification test for rehires was held at Suffolk County Community College's Brentwood campus in May. The swim portion was conducted in the school's 25-yard pool; the run, on the outdoor, quarter-mile track nearby.
A SLOW START
That day, Peters, who had returned from Florida a few weeks earlier, never made it to the track test. A slow start off the blocks in the swim hurt his time, and as he was finishing the last of his four laps, he realized the crowd of lifeguards that had been cheering him from the poolside bleachers had suddenly gone silent.
"I know what that means," he said. He had missed the 1 minute, 20 second cut off by about two seconds.
Now Peters had a choice: He could sit out a year and take the test the following year. If he passed, he would again be a lifeguard, but he'd lose his seniority.
His other option was to take another shot at the rehire test the following Saturday. If he failed a second time, he was out -- probably for good -- because if he wanted to try next year, he'd be required to take the rigorous four-part test for new hires.
So, Peters, the father of two grown children -- Corinne Dictor and Michael, who also were lifeguards -- and grandfather of four, decided to retake the test for rehires. This time, Peters brought help: Tammy McLoughlin, 47, a swimmer he had coached in high school and who later joined him at Jones Beach as a lifeguard.
"Capt. Ed is an amazing guy who has done so much for me," said McLoughlin, a mother of four who lives in North Merrick. "No doubt I'd help him in any way I could."
The week before the retest, McLoughlin was on the phone with Peters every night, discussing his pacing, his start, his diet and rest. The day of the test, she said, "it was game on."
This time, Peters was ready at the start. He knifed into the water with McLoughlin at his side. "I was his rabbit," she explained. "I had to hug the lane next to him, so he could see me."
As they approached the finish, the clock was ticking toward 1:20. At about 1 minute, 18 seconds, Peters thrust out his arm "like Michael Phelps," he said jokingly, to touch the side of the pool with his extended fingertips.
Time: 1:19:67. He passed by 33 one-hundredths of a second.
"I swam under the rope and hugged him," McLoughlin said. "I was yelling, 'You did it, you did it!'"
"The noise was incredible," said Bob Lenti, 66, a retired lifeguard from Miller Place who had come to Brentwood to watch his longtime friend. "It was as if we were all taking the test with him."
Thirty minutes later, Peters lined up for the run: With McLoughlin again at his side, and two of his younger guards from Field Six calling out his times at checkpoints along the way, he circled the track. His knee and hip were still sore, but he finished with seconds to spare.
And so, for Peters, the endless summer continues. "The stars are lined up correctly and the planets are revolving around the sun," he says. "I'm back at Jones Beach for my 50th season."