FUJAIRAH // There was no running in slow motion through glittering beads of seawater for the 100 lifeguards who competed in the seventh annual UAE Lifeguard Championship at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah yesterday.
Not even thunder, lightning and heavy rains could dampen the spirits of the 20 teams from hotels and resorts around the UAE. They competed in seven individual and team events aimed at showcasing their lifesaving skills.
They had trained too hard and too long to let anything short of victory stop them now.
"This championship is a chance to show their fitness, rescue skills, and looks at real-life scenarios," said event manager, Kasun Kannangara. "This year we added the casualty pick-up, where we had a conscious swimmer 100m offshore needing rescue - fastest time wins."
While no official figures were available from police, at least 20 incidents of death by drowning were reported on the pages of The National in 2012.
"Water safety is a hugely important subject that most people seem to ignore," said Patric Antaki, the general manager of the Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah, where the championship was held.
"I'm glad to see that the UAE government is taking the matter very seriously and has implemented new safety regulations to improve public safety at beaches and pools."
The annual UAE Lifeguard Championship was first hosted at Al Aqah in 2006 and returned to the resort this year as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations.
"This is a serious message presented in a fun way," said Mr Antaki. "People don't appreciate what these lifeguards do, and this event reminds people just how important they are."
Mr Kannangara agreed that since the championship started, lifeguards had been getting more respect and attention from the public. "We want to raise awareness about water safety around the UAE," he said.
The championship is open only to certified lifeguards, but not all participated.
"We want to encourage participants from government and private organisations. Dubai Municipality won the 2008 championship but has not participated since," said Mr Kannangara.
The winner of last year's UAE Lifeguard Championships, Janaka Jayarathna from Le Meridian Al Aqah Beach Resort, decided to take on a coaching role this year.
"My team worked very hard for this. We woke up at 6am and trained for two to three hours, six days a week for the past three dmonths. But so have the other teams and competition is very tough this year."
Despite the competition, Mr Jayarathna's team took a first place finish in the 400m beach relay run.
"I love being a lifeguard, being able to save people's lives is a very good feeling. It's like being a doctor," said Mr Jayarathna, who has lost count of how many people he has rescued.
"Being a lifeguard is no joke, you have about 20 seconds to get to the victim. One or two seconds can mean the difference between life and death."
Mr Jayarathna said competitions like the UAE Lifeguard Championship allow the rescuers to improve their skills and added that he had seen a year-on-year improvement in the level of competition.
By the end of the day's event, the team from Le Meridien Mina Al Siyahi had taken first place.
Their efforts were awarded with round-trip economy tickets from Emirates Airline to any destination in the GCC, India, Sri Lanka or The Philippines. Second place went to the lifeguards from Wild Wadi, and the team from Atlantis took third.
"Many people used to think that lifeguards were nothing more than people who cleaned the beaches and pools. Thankfully this mentality is changing now," said Mr Antaki.
"Happiness can turn to tragedy very quickly, and without warning, so it's important that people listen to the lifeguards."