By Donald Wittkowski
“Are you ready, guys? I want you to run as fast as you can,” Sea Isle City lifeguard Gabby Breazeale said, exhorting dozens of tiny competitors clad in green T-shirts.
Suddenly, the starting flag dropped and the children tore down the beach, their faces locked in determination as their arms pumped frantically and their feet churned up the powdery sand.
The crowds lining the 44th Street beach cheered wildly as the boys and girls sped by. They erupted in applause and whoops again when the children passed the finish line.
Over and over, 200 children divided in age groups between 4 and 8 sprinted down the beach and plunged into the surf Saturday during Sea Isle’s Capt. Thomas P. McCann Mascot School Races, a longstanding tradition every summer.
Hosted by the Sea Isle City Beach Patrol, the event gives children a fun day of competition while also teaching them the importance of beach safety, team work and good sportsmanship.
“All of our lifeguards are instructors and teachers. We are letting the children know about beach safety. It is second nature to them,” said Lt. Mike McCormick, a Beach Patrol member who organized the Mascot Races.
Breazeale was one of the lifeguards who helped to line up the children for the sprints, while Renny Steele, captain of the Beach Patrol, waved the starting flag.
“They’re having a blast,” Breazeale said. “It’s a great time. I love seeing them run down the beach.”
One of the competitors, 5-year-old Tyler Kline, concentrated on the water as he was preparing for a race that combined a beach sprint with a charge into the surf.
“Good luck,Ty,” his mother, Lori Kline, shouted to her son while giving him a thumbs-up sign.
Tyler emerged from the water with his blond hair soaking wet. He smiled when his mother asked him how well he did.
“Real good,” he responded. “But it was really hard. The waves are big and were crashing down.”
Tyler and the other children jumped into the waves under the watchful eyes of the lifeguards, who were in the water to protect the boys and girls.
Lori Kline said the event is a great experience for all children, combining safety tips with two hours of exercise. She noted that Tyler, now in his second year of competing, always looks forward to the Mascot Races.
The Klines, who live in Mount Laurel, N.J., and have a summer condo in Sea Isle, expect to have another family member in the races next summer. Tyler’s 3-year-old sister, Emily, will be old enough to compete in 2017.
Emily, an auburn-haired cutie, had only one word to describe how she felt about the races: “Cool,” she said excitedly.
Another competitor, Vincent Farina, a 4-year-old whose family lives in Sea Isle, complained that the ocean was a bit cold, but otherwise had a good time in the races.
“I was running fast,” Vincent said.
His mother, Lisa Farina, said her son was a little nervous competing against so many other children.
“He had a lot of fun, though,” she said. “We live here at the shore and go to the beach every day.”
Vincent’s cousin, Kristi Rohrer, is a Sea Isle lifeguard who helped teach the young boy about beach safety.
Rohrer stressed some important safety tips for everyone — children and adults — that she has shared with Tyler.
“Always stay in front of a lifeguard stand,” she said. “And always listen to the lifeguard.”