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Zuma lifeguard remains dedicated to the duty, 53 seasons in

Ed Heinrich, who recently won the United States Lifesaving Association National Lifeguard Championships, poses at Zuma Beach on Aug. 30. Maile Mason/22nd Century Media
Ed Heinrich competes at the 2017 South Bay Surf Festival, where he finished first in his division. Photos Submitted
Zuma lifeguard Ed Heinrich poses at the 2016 Malibu Triathlon with his grandson, Marcelo, who attends Our Lady of Malibu School.
Eric Billingsley, Freelance Reporter
3:09 pm PDT September 5, 2017

Longtime Zuma Beach lifeguard Ed Heinrich recently won six gold medals in his age group at the National Lifeguard Championships in Daytona Beach, Florida. 

He took gold in the run-swim-run, ironman, board race, ironguard, surf race and surf ski competitions.

He was even named an official “Baywatch Hero,” in recognition of his achievements and as part of a promotion for the extended version 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray Combo Pack release of the “Baywatch” movie with Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson.

Heinrich, who’s 71 years old and began patrolling Zuma in 1965, is happy to win and receive the recognition. But he’s quick to downplay the accomplishment. Staying in top physical shape, he said, is simply a requirement of being able to save people’s lives.

“[Staying in shape] is what lifeguards do,” said Heinrich, who completed a 30-mile bike ride and half-mile ocean swim prior to sitting down to talk with Malibu Surfside News on Aug. 30. “If I don’t stay in shape, I don’t belong here.”

Heinrich swam competitively at Glendora High School and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. At age 18, he began working summers as an L.A. County lifeguard. One reason he chose Zuma Beach is because it had a bunkhouse at the time where lifeguards could live during the season.

“It was a natural thing,” he said. “Working as a lifeguard paid pretty well, so I was able to put myself through school. Zuma was also the furthest place from home, and I could sleep there overnight.”

But Heinrich quickly learned patrolling Zuma was no vacation. It’s known for heavy rip currents, and lifeguards can make anywhere from 50-100 rescues during the summer season alone. On big surf days, they might make a couple dozen rescues in a single day.

Most of the work, he said, is preventive — meaning lifeguards are constantly watching people in the water and sizing up their swimming skills and ocean conditions so they can get to a potential victim before they’re in trouble.

But they also deal with plenty of life-threatening rescues that require quick reaction time, physical endurance and, very importantly, teamwork. 

Heinrich went on to join the Air Force, fly during the Vietnam War and work as an airline pilot until retiring 11 years ago. Regardless, his passion for working at Zuma and camaraderie with fellow lifeguards has kept him coming back for 53 seasons.

“We’re a tight-knit group and all friends,” Heinrich said. “We really take pride in keeping this beach safe. We take ownership of the beach, and I’m very proud to be a part of this group.”

In fact, Heinrich’s two brothers, son and three nephews are all lifeguards at Zuma Beach. And family and non-family peers keep each other in check, he said. If somebody puts on a lot of weight during the offseason, they hear about it. 

The ribbing has nothing to do with vanity. It’s a necessary part of making sure everybody stays motivated and in top physical shape to do the important job at hand.

During the offseason, Heinrich lives with his wife of 48 years just outside of Salt Lake City in Utah. To stay fit, he swims indoors a few days a week, does indoor cycling, lifts weights and works as a ski and snowboard instructor at Snowbird.

He also works one day a week during the ski season with veterans at Wasatch Adaptive Sports in Utah. The nonprofit organization provides recreational, educational and social programs for children, adults and veterans with disabilities.

“I feel like I can connect with veterans, because I served in the military,” Heinrich said.

Looking ahead, Heinrich would like to slow down, at least a little bit.

He said he is at a point in life where he and his wife have set aside enough money for retirement. However, sometimes they don’t have enough time to do the things they want to do.

Heinrich said he still plans to work as a lifeguard in the immediate future, and has no plans to fall out of shape.

“I’ll keep working out, because I need goals,” he said. “I don’t want to take [lifeguard] work from the younger guys, but I’m always happy to fill in.”