A Riddle, wrapped in a wet towel, inside an enigma, trying to rescue the pride of the lifeguards

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(Sean Hiller/Staff Photographer)
Alison Riddle (in red) and Tom Kieswater of the Hermosa Beach team paddle through the surf on the Dory boat leg of the Bud Stevenson Intracrew Medley Relay at the International Surf Festival on Friday night. Riddle is going to New Jersey soon to defend her title in the United States Lifesaving Association National Championships.

Riddle me this: Why aren’t lifeguard rescue competitions part of this weekend’s X Games?

There’s not much more athletically excessive than the fittest bunch of “Baywatch” 20-somethings that you’d ever want dragging you out of the water, using their bodies as floatation devices, paddling out, swimming back, getting gnashed around from the pounding waves and brave enough to ignore what’s exactly lurking in the deep blue surf below.

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“An extreme sport? It’s definitely an extreme sport – without a doubt,” said Riddle (center right, ready to start a competition), not even questioning the premise. “You think it’s easy?

“In Australia, these are the athletes they put on the Wheaties boxes.”

Even if she wanted to, the 25-year-old resident of Hermosa Beach, native of San Bernardino and defending women’s title holder in the U.S. Lifesaving Association National Championships didn’t really have the time to argue about it.

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Riddle had just finished her day job – she’s a fulltime sales rep for a pharmaceutical company – and sat at a Redondo Beach eatery sipping a glass of water with ideas of getting out to the beach before the sun set to work in one more training session before this weekend’s Intracrew Medley Relay and Judge Taplin Three-Mile Lifeguard relay competitions at the International Surf Festival in Hermosa Beach.

She’d already been up since a 5:45 a.m. swim session in an El Segundo poll to start her day.

Then, after putting in her sales shift on Tuesday night, she’s flying to New Jersey with about six dozen L.A. County Lifeguard team members to defend their team title as well as her individual championship.

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Dan Avila/USC Sports Information
Alison Riddle scored 27 goals in her four years playing water polo USC, as the team reached the NCAA Tournament all four years, finishing second in 2006 and ’08, and third in ’05 and ’07. She received the coach’s award as a freshman in 2005 and a senior in 2008.

Like Riddle, they come from all kinds of water-sport backgrounds – swimming, surfing, rowing. Riddle might not have received better training for her current part-time lifeguard job than what she got in college sports.

“You can’t be a lifeguard without being an athlete,” she said. “You’re used to having massive girls climbing on you, and trying to kick you off. Water polo at USC was so competitive and focused. I’m extremely competitive but if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it.

“I just feel so comfortable in the water, I know I can use those same skills to help other people.”

If only some of us who look at the sport of lifeguarding weren’t so Hasselhoff-ed about it.

A year ago, ESPN the Magazine did a story listing six “unsung heroes” of sports. Riddle, who has only been competing in the national lifeguard competition since 2009, came in second.

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First up was the U.S. Lawnmower Riding champion, Jayson Mikula (left).

Behind her, the list included the Grand Slam of Darts champ, the Grand Slam of Cornhole champ and the International Shuffleboard Team champ.

Somehow, the world champion of competitive whistling apparently wasn’t unsung enough to knock Riddle out.

“Lawnmowing beat me? Really?” Riddle asked aloud. “Do I think they were making a joke of all this? I don’t think so. In fact, I’m going to go with ‘no,’ if only for own pride.”

Pride, and courage, is pretty much what a lifeguard around here has to show for their work. While L.A. County Lifeguards pay well, only 150 are fulltime (out of 900), and the test to become starts with a 1,000-meter ocean swim.

The test to becoming the individual national champion in lifeguarding involves piling up enough points in different disciplines. Riddle, who has trained in Australia and competed in Japan and Egypt, flat-out won five of the 12 events she entered at last year’s event in Huntington Beach.

One of them was the Iron Woman competition – a 100-meter beach sprint, a 400-meter swim, a 600-meter paddle board and the 800-meter Surfski race.

And that was with minimal experience on the last of the four elements – it involves staying up on an 18-foot-long kayak contraption that’s only about as wide as the seat, paddling with carbon-fiber oars and working the back rudder with foot pedals.

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Alison Riddle competes in the Skisurf, keeping her balance as she comes in from the surf.

“You get just a little tippy on that,” Riddle said, “and you’re sideways.”

And underwater. With a bunch of lifeguards watching from the shore not so much willing to run out and fetch you unless their instincts get the better of them.

“Alison is one of the top lifesaving athletes we have,” said Jay Butki, the LACOLA Surf Racing team manager. “She has incredible skill and expertise.”

And heart.

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Much of Riddle’s time is also spent campaigning for lung cancer awareness and research through the LUNGevity organization (linked here). The disease inexplicably took the life of her younger sister, Adriane, at the age of 20.

She had been playing water polo at San Jose State University before coming home with the diagnosis, as the family tried to come to terms with how someone her age who didn’t smoke and was athletic could be taken down by something that claims more women than breast or ovarian cancer.

Through her experience watching her sister try trial studies with different medications, Alison gravitated toward working as a rep for AstraZeneca, able to explain first-hand how their pharmaceutical can prolong the quality of life.

Alison Riddle couldn’t rescue her sister. But she’s found her passion to be the best in her field, combined with the compassion to want to save other’s lives, goes to the extreme each day.

And maybe, she’ll even get to hang an X Games medal around her neck, once lifeguard rescue is deemed worthy.

“I’d love it,” said Riddle. “Bring it on, Tony Hawk.”

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Alison Riddle comes in from the surf after competing in the paddleboard competition in the Southwest Regionals in Seal Beach last weekend.

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