Manhattan Beach kid with Down Syndrome holds own in rigorous Junior Lifeguard program
At the start of last summer, Kirra Troeger lined up with several hundred other Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguards hopefuls at the entrance to the Culver City Plunge. Like most of her Manhattan Beach schoolmates, the 11-year-old had been training throughout the spring for the Junior Lifeguard swim test.
Kirra’s older sisters Montana and Saralynn were Junior Lifeguard Cadets. Her dad Steve was a Junior Lifeguard for eight summers before becoming a Los Angeles County Lifeguard in 1974. One of his JGs during his five years as a JG instructor was Kyle Daniels, the head of the Junior Lifeguard program last summer. Steve retired as captain of Baywatch Avalon in 2008.
None of this old history meant a thing to the lifeguard timers at the plunge. The Junior Lifeguard selection process is as cold blooded as any in youth sports. Swim 100 yards in under 1:50 and you’re in.
Nearly 2,000 kids take the Junior Lifeguard test each summer. Roughly 65 percent pass.
For them, that first JG summer serves as a rite of passage, severing the tethers to their parents. The ocean most of their parents are afraid to step foot in becomes first their testing ground, then their playground.
When Kirra’s turn came to take the test, she swam her heart out and missed the cutoff by five seconds.
The lifeguard who failed her said she was a fast enough swimmer, but her turns were too slow.
“When you reach the wall at the end of each lap, pretend it’s red hot and push away from it as fast as possible,” the lifeguard told her.
The following week Kirra worked on her turns at Begg Pool, where she has swum since she was five with the City of Manhattan Beach Dolphin Swim Team.
The next Saturday, she joined another long line of JG hopefuls at the Pacific Palisades Charter School pool to take the test. This time she kicked hard off the wall at each turn and finished five seconds under the 1:50 cut off.
When the lifeguard looked at his stopwatch and smiled, Kirra bounded from the pool to the short line of kids waiting to be issued their blue JG swimsuits. JG suits carry more status at the beach than the trendiest bikinis and boardshorts.
Kirra was prepared to make her family and friends proud and prove her doubters wrong.
She was the first Down Syndrome kid ever to become a Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguard.
Down, but not out
Down Syndrome is the result of a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. The consequences are pervasive. Eyes are slanted. Bodies tend toward short and thick because of poor muscle tone. Learning is impaired.
“The poor muscle tone affects not just mobility, but speech, vision, swallowing, digestion and all the other bodily functions you don’t normally think of requiring strong, healthy muscles,” Kirra’s mother Kathy said.
“Even 20 years ago, mothers were told to institutionalize their Down Syndrome children. But a few brave mothers refused to give their children up and they learned their children could be taught to read and write,” Kathy said.
Beginning when Kirra was 13 months old, the Troegers made three trips a week from their Avalon home on Catalina Island to the Pediatric Therapy Network in Torrance. The Troegers credit PTN’s “total immersion” speech and physical therapy programs with enabling Kirra to be mainstreamed in school and to participate with other kids in programs like Junior Lifeguards.
On Catalina, Kirra followed her older sisters’ lead in becoming what her dad calls “a salty sea dog.” She swam, snorkeled and sailed. But the small island lacked the educational resources Kirra would need, so when it was time for kindergarten, the family moved to Manhattan Beach, where Steve grew up.
“The first person I met with when we moved back to the mainland was Grandview School principal Rhonda Steinberg. She made sure Kirra had supportive teachers. Grandview has been awesome. They focus on her abilities, not her disabilities,” Kathy said.
“Instead of putting special needs kids in a separate program and occasionally putting them in with the other kids, Grandview puts the special needs kids in with the other kids and occasionally pulls them out for remedial help. Being with regular kids helps the special needs kids learn appropriate behavior,” Kathy said.
The Troegers’s favorite program at the school isn’t a school program, it’s the extra curricular Friendship Circle.
“Whoever invented the Friendship Circle deserves a medal. At Grandview, all the cool kids are members. They’re paired with special needs kids. They have a monthly movie night at the Friendship Circle office in Redondo and monthly birthday parties at Round Table Pizza. Some special needs kids kids have never been invited to a birthday party,” Kathy said.
“We’ll be at Jamba Juice and kids will call out to Kirra and I’ll ask, ‘How do you know them?’ and she’ll say, ‘Friendship Circle.’”
Kirra and her parents also participate in monthly get togethers with the roughly 30 other South Bay Down Syndrome Association families.
To address problems with muscle tone, and because of her love of the ocean, Kirra swims two to four days a week with the Dolphin Swim Team.
“Jesus Sandoval, who runs the program, and coach Jasper Neri treat Kirra like everyone else. She swims the 50 and the 100 at meets. The Dolphins helped her overcome her fear of competition. Everyone always cheers for her,” Kathy said.
But despite her swimming ability, Kirra’s first summer in Junior Guards did not go smoothly.
“I was afraid of the buoy swims and I didn’t have any friends,” Kirra said of last summer.
In preparation for this summer’s JGs, Kirra added running with Girls on the Run to her swim team workouts. Girls on the Run meets weekly in Polliwog Park.
At the start of this summer’s session, a JG supervisor told Kirra’s parents that her performance during the first week would be assessed and she would be dropped if she was unable to keep up.
At the end of the first week, instructors Elle Quane and Kailey Makuta turned in their assessment. Kirra had finished 13th, 11th, 9th and 8th in the buoy swims.
“I have 25 boys and girls and Kirra usually finishes around 10th in the swims,” Quane said. “Her best finish is seventh. She always gives 100 percent and always has a positive attitude. To the other kids, she’s just another JG. The ocean is a great equalizer.”
Kirra’s dad credits Quane and Makuta, and Kirra having friends in her group, with the turnaround from last summer. Three of Kirra’s Grandview schoolmates, Brooke Baudendistel, Jenna Colligan and Ava Miller are in her JG group.
“Coaches and teachers love Kirra or hate her because she can be challenging. Elle and Kailey hit it off with her. And having friends to push her has brought out the competitor in her,” he said.
Reeling in the competition
Last Thursday was the final day of the regular JG session. El Segundo instructors had arranged a swim competition with the Manhattan Beach JGs.
The El Segundo JGs met that morning at their regular spot, in front of the El Segundo jetty lifeguard tower. After a quick pep talk from Quane and Makuta they ran a mile south in the hard sand to the Rosecrans lifeguard tower. They were greeted with spirited taunts from the Manhattan JGs, who had run the mile north from their meeting spot in front of the Marine Street tower.
Two buoys were anchored 100 yards apart, 150 yards offshore, in preparation for a 400 yard, horseshoe buoy race.
“Horseshoe buoy races are my favorite part of JGs,” Kirra said when she saw the course.
Kirra lined up with three dozen fellow El Segundo and Manhattan JGs on the high tide berm.
On a signal from Manhattan Beach JG instructor Tracey Geller, the girls sprinted into the ocean. Kirra was slow coming off the beach, but once in the water dolphined confidently over and under the pounding surf. The south wind put a bump on the outside water. Swimming strongly in bumpy water is what separates open ocean swimmers from pool swimmers. The high elbow, ocean stroke Kirra has worked on since she was four stayed constant. She was near last rounding the first buoy. But then she began reeling in the churning pack. She was mid pack rounding the second buoy and held that position through the final leg to the beach.
“Go Kirra, go,” El Segundo JGs yelled as she fought off two Manhattan Beach JGs on the run up the berm to the finish line. She finished 18th.
“Manhattan’s always strong,” her dad said.
After a game of nation ball and a run back to the El Segundo jetty, Kirra, Brooke and Ava met up at the Troegers’s 41-foot sailboat Triggerfish 5 in King Harbor to stand-up paddle. When the girls got bored they hatched a plan to go to Brooke’s home to swim in her pool and do one another’s hair.
Kirra’s parents were below, in the boat cabin, talking to friends when Steve asked Kathy where their youngest daughter was.
“Her friends told me you said it was okay for her to go Brooke’s house?” Kathy said.
“They never asked me,” Steve said. ER