JUST past 9 a.m. yesterday at Jones Beach, the ocean swept east to west and the waves broke like thunder, 4 to 5 feet high.

One by one, two dozen 11-year-olds, buoys slung across their chests, ran toward a swell, then dove like a "porpoise," as the lifeguards say, under the wave and through the shore break.

On the other side, an instructor waved his arms and waited to be "rescued" by the young lifeguards in training.

Learning the correct way to enter the water when there's a heavy shore break is one element of the Jones Beach junior lifeguard program, which aims to prepare youths aged 10 to 16 for the rigors of the job by teaching them how to stay safe in the water and conduct rescues. The program will be hosting its annual tournament for junior lifeguards from across Long Island Monday.

For Sierra Koehler, 11, who returned to the program for her second summer, the weekly lessons have helped conquer her fear of rough seas. "Before I started the program, I was scared to death about the waves," said Sierra, a swimmer with a West Islip club. Now, she dives headlong into the swell without looking back.

"The knowledge kind of helps with the fear," said her junior lifeguard partner and fellow club swimmer, Brooke Baldassare, 11, of Lindenhurst.

The trainees will work in pairs for some drills in Monday's competition, which features rescue races, distance swims and other events. The competitors will be divided into three age groups.

"The kids will take the test at 17 to become lifeguards, and they'll know how to do things that other children don't know how to do," said Scott Riegel, a Jones Beach lifeguard and head of the junior training program.

About 200 junior lifeguards are enrolled in the program, which was founded 10 years ago and has seen classes as large as 300. Each participant pays a $100 fee. Many return each summer, and some graduates become lifeguard instructors.

Sunday, three such graduates, including Jones Beach lifeguard Rachel McShane, led a score of 14-year-olds on a ¼-mile swim west, parallel to the shore.

McShane, who spent seven years as a trainee, credits instructors with imparting the skills she needed to get the job. "I just like giving back to something that got me probably the best job I'll ever have," said McShane, 23, of Baldwin, who is also studying toward a master's degree in secondary special education. "You're helping to train future lifeguards."

Nearby, as another crew coiled lengths of rope into a bucket, her father, John McShane, explained the three roles each of the trainees learns in order to effect a rescue: The buoy swimmer goes out to the swimmer in distress with a flotation device, the line swimmer takes a rope out to both of them, and the puller brings them in.

"They're in the program, and next thing they're here, teaching other kids," said McShane, 55, a lifeguard at Robert Moses State Park. "It's like a tradition."

Like Sierra, Lee Ann Santore was scared of the water when she entered the program a few summers ago.

"I would cry and make the lifeguard hold my hand," said Santore, 13, of North Babylon. Since then, she's become a competitive diver and swimmer in the same West Islip club to which Sierra and Brooke belong.

And someday, she said, "we all want to be lifeguards somewhere."

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