Lifeguard Ben Carlson remembered at Newport Beach memorial run-swim, four years after his death during a rescue
Newport Beach lifeguard Ben Carlson created a challenging course to test junior guards who trained under his leadership a decade ago — an annual swim around the wooden Balboa Pier, a round-trip run to and from the Wedge just north of the Newport Harbor entrance, then another swim around the pier.
In the years following, on the anniversary of Carlson’s death July 6, 2014 during a rescue in big surf, a handful of lifeguards gathered to take on the challenge. It was a way to remember their friend and colleague known for his elite waterman skills, passion for the ocean and love for lifeguarding.
The event became official on Friday with about 120 lifeguards from Newport Beach and other agencies, as well as junior lifeguards, taking on the course on what they dubbed “Ben Carlson Day.”
The purpose: to bring the beach community together to remember the lifeguard who made the ultimate sacrifice. Carlson is the only U.S. lifeguard to die while on duty.
“It seems like we’re getting stronger every year,” said longtime friend and Newport Beach lifeguard Capt. Skeeter Leeper.
Carlson’s father, Chris Carlson, began the day with quiet time on the sand in Newport Beach remembering his son, before watching the race and then picking up Carlson’s favorite pizza to feed all the lifeguards — topped with pineapple and jalapeño from Big Belly Deli, an annual tradition for the Carlson family.
Flowers were set up near a stainless-steel statue of Carlson, created by his brother-in-law Jake Janz, near the Newport Beach Pier.
Joined by his wife, Teri, and other family members and friends, Chris Carlson looked out to the sea of people wearing Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation t-shirts, some with the slogan “Ben Did Go,” which caught on after his death. The night prior, on Thursday, the foundation gave out $10,000 college scholarship awards to recipients Kelly Schulte, Tristan Curnow and Taylor Gray.
“It’s really neat to see Ben’s legacy continue, it hasn’t faded away,” Chris Carlson said. “It’s harder to find people who knew him. Now, people just kind of know of him.”
Bridget Storm, a Laguna Beach seasonal lifeguard who participated in Newport’s junior lifeguard program as a kid, said she wanted do join the event to support the lifeguarding community.
“It’s kind of a like a family,” she said.
Watching the junior lifeguards brought back childhood memories at the same spot, of the days she was taught about respect and responsibility.
“It just teaches you how to start your journey of being on your own, as well as camaraderie,” Storm said. “It just teaches your kids how to work in a team, as well as improvise when they face adversity.”
Lori-Ann Christie urged her son, Simon Burtnyk, 10, to join the memorial run-swim, despite having a long day of water polo practice ahead.
“You gotta go and show that you respect that kind of sacrifice that was made,” said Christie, of Newport Beach. “Give it your all and be there for that memory. He was an important part of our community.”
Prior to the event, Sierra Leeper, 9, sang the national anthem to the crowd gathered on the sand, before three of Newport’s rescue boats, with the American flag hoisted and sirens blaring, drove by as a tribute to Carlson. It’s a tradition they’ve maintained every year on the anniversary of Carlson’s passing.
Friend and former Newport guard Chris Conway called it “a tough day for all of us,” but also an amazing day bringing the community together.
The swim was 700 yards around the Balboa Pier, a two-mile run south on the sand, followed by another swim around the pier. The younger junior guards did a modified shorter course.
Organizers of the event noted that it wasn’t a race, rather a fun swim-run event — but these were lifeguards, after all, and competitive by nature.
Laguna Beach lifeguard Porter Hogan, 26, was the first to cross the finish line.
He didn’t know Carlson, but the fallen lifeguard’s death is a reminder of the dangers they face while on the job. Hogan said he thought about Carlson during the course and as he found the perfect wave to bodysurf in toward shore.
“Swimming around the pier, seeing the boats, he was on my mind the whole time,” Hogan said. “It wasn’t a competitive race or anything, but if Ben was anything like me — we’re competitive, no matter what. We just don’t have it in us, we gotta go all out.”