As youngsters, Amanda Calabrese and her brother watched from the beach as their father, T.J., surfed the mighty waves at Montauk. They wanted to follow in his footsteps, so to speak.
Just a few things were missing, though. In order to ride the crest of the waves, they needed to become not only strong swimmers but confident ones who were ready for whatever the changing ocean tides would bring.
“He told us that we needed to be super confident and strong swimmers in the water to go surfing with him in Montauk,” the 20-year-old East Hampton native recalled. “Any kid knows how to run, any kid knows how to kick a ball, but with surfing there is so much danger and the unknown.”
Calabrese’s parents wanted her to be confident enough in the water to take the waves, so they entered her and her brother, also named T.J., in the East Hampton Junior Lifeguard Program. She started the program when she was seven years old, practicing her dives and swimming out to the break. Four years later, at age 11, she began competing in life-saving competitions.
Today, she is the reigning women’s beach flags champion in the United States.
For those who don’t know what the event is, it’s like musical chairs without the chairs, and on the beach. In the event, competitors are asked to lay down flat on their stomachs in the sand all in a row. When the whistle blows, they jump up quickly, turn around, and run to flags placed in the sand. There is one less flag for the number of competitors — resulting in a dive for each remaining flag. If they don’t seize a flag during a round, they are eliminated.
Calabrese has taken the event the past three years at the United States Lifeguard Association’s annual tournament. This year, on July 19, she easily took the event at the local level during the Ocean Lifeguard Tournament at Main Beach in East Hampton, which serves as preparation for many of Long Island’s lifeguards who participate in the national competition. And this week she is ready for another go as lifeguards from all over the U.S. head to Virginia Beach for this year’s competition.
So, does the reigning beach flags queen ever eat sand while diving for a flag in a pack of other women? Not entirely, but Calabrese said she has come close.
“At this point, it’s just part of the game,” she said, noting that sand does get in her nose from time to time, and there is always the looming danger of it getting in her eyes. “But I’m a lucky girl because my dad is an optometrist, so if I get sand in my eye, I run up to dad, and he fixes everything.”
Diving in the sand does have its moments, she acknowledged. “It’s really uncomfortable, but you get used to it,” she said.
And does she have any special ritual or routine that she follows before her main event?
“I’m a very superstitious person,” she said. The beach flags event is always held at night, so after the day’s events, Calabrese makes sure that she is well rested and makes sure to wear a black bikini bathing suit.
Other events Calabrese competes in include the paddle board, in which she was runner up nationally, and she won the board rescue with her partner in the Hampton Lifeguard Association last year.
Calabrese’s superstition seems to work, as her competitions have taken her all over the world, including to France, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. But the “nationals,” as she refers to the yearly national competition stateside, will always hold a special place in her heart.
“The nationals are always great because I get to see my friends,” she said. “It’s always one big reunion.”
And no matter how far she travels, home is never far from her mind.
Calabrese no longer takes the lifeguard stand to watch over beachgoers as they splash about in the waves. These days when she is back home in East Hampton, she coaches junior lifeguards and also runs an all-girls surf camp called Montauk Boardriders.
She says that even though it might seem that the East End is small, its lifeguards are some of the best. “We have one of the best programs in the country,” she said. “I find the kids always willing to learn. I find the community here so supportive and so able to create an empowering community out here. I think that’s what counts.”
As for surfing? The sport is now only a pastime for the champ. “This became more than surfing very quickly,” she said.