It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday and Avila Beach is starting to fill up.
Vacant parking spaces on the beachside drag quickly dwindle as students back from school, adults back from the office and families en masse come to soak in the sand, stores, surf and setting sun.
In a clearing of beach inside the shadow of the pier is Mission Prep senior Ryan Van Til, whose work is just beginning.
He lies on his stomach like so many others trying to catch some rays, but in an instant, as if prompted by an imaginary alarm or starting gun, he bolts upright and takes off on a dead sprint toward an invisible finish line.
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Van Til, 17, and a longtime member of the Avila Beach Junior Lifeguard Program, isn’t at the beach for a lazy evening or trying to get a tan.
He’s training for a global event he never once thought he’d be a part of.
Van Til is one of 12 boys and girls nationwide who will represent the United States in the Youth Life Saving World Championships this week in Montpellier and La Grande Motte, France.
“The whole experience is going to be amazing,” he said. “I know it’s something I’m never going to forget.”
Van Til is not certified yet — that comes next year — but since he was 10 he’s been a part of the Avila Beach five-week summer program aimed at training and educating area youths on how to be a lifeguard.
“We started out with 28 kids that first year,” said director Russ Edwards, who started the group as his master’s project at Cal Poly in 2001. “We’ve grown every year, and the last four or five years we’ve been maxed out at 200.”
By the third year of the program, Edwards started bringing his lifeguards-in-training to competitions in Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and to the state championship.
The contests cover events on land and in sea, with a multitude of simulated situations meant to recreate real emergencies.
Van Til, who also runs track and plays soccer, admitted he’s not much of a swimmer, so he’s made a name for himself on the beach — particularly in a sprinting game called beach flags.
Trust him, Van Til urged, it’s far more grueling than the name might suggest.
“They try to keep you away from contact,” he said with a smirk, “but there’s definitely a lot of contact in it.”
Beach flags starts with competitors lined up on their stomachs in the sand — sometimes 20 in a row — facing the opposite direction of their ultimate goal.
While facing the other way, sections of hose are laid out some 25 to 30 yards away. There are always less hose pieces than racers, because when the starter gives yells “Go!” the object is to be one of the first to get up, locate a hose, sprint to it and grab it.
“It’s like a musical chairs process,” Van Til explained. “If you don’t get one, you’re out.”
Yes, it’s like musical chairs. But instead of preschoolers jostling to see who can sit down the fastest, beach flags sees swarms of teenagers running and diving head first with arms extended.
Van Til broke both bones in his forearm four years ago, when he had already grabbed the hose and someone dove in late on top of him.
But he’s been as good as anyone at it since, winning at Santa Barbara and Carpinteria before braving the 100-degree weather — and sand — at the state final at Huntington Beach in July.
Van Til advanced from his heat to make the final eight and kept advancing through the single-elimination knockout stage. Down to the final three, he and another competitor had to resort to a “run off” after they both grabbed the hose at the same time. He won that and then the final to earn his first state championship.
“Beach flags is probably the farthest (competition) from what lifeguards do on a daily basis,” Edwards said. “But when crazy things happen in the water, you’ve got to be able to run quickly, and assess the situation as you’re sprinting.”
Van Til did not compete at the national championships, but when a Team USA committee member looking for sprinters approached Edwards, he was the first name considered.
“We got back from the (state) competition at midnight, and Ryan went home right away and submitted his application,” Edwards said.
Two days later, Van Til — who has three younger brothers also training to be lifeguards — received an email on his phone asking if he wanted to compete on the world stage.
“You had to respond back and say ‘Yes, I’d like to be on the team,’ ” he said. “It was a no-brainer.”
He’s spent the past month and a half training, sprinting on Avila Beach and running the dunes in Los Osos. He and his father left for France on Friday, and he’ll have a few days to meet and work out with his countrymen — and women — before competition starts Tuesday.
“I’m just going to work hard,” he said, “and hopefully everything works out.”
Thirteen countries will be attending with anywhere from two to four kids from each nation in each event. Van Til said Australia, New Zealand and, to his surprise, Canada are the traditionally strong countries with America mostly in the middle of the pack.
He’ll compete Tuesday through Sunday — results can be found at www.rescue2014.fr — before heading north to Paris with his dad to do some sightseeing.
Van Til said his future in terms of college and career has yet to become clear, but he’s excited to put seven years of training to practical use when he turns 18 and can become a certified lifeguard.
He’ll use the skills and instinctive lessons learned from beach flags, but he doesn’t have to give up the game for good with the world championships coming every two years in varying spots across the globe.
“Really,” Van Til said, “you can do this until you can’t run anymore.”