Started Training for the Job on a Dare
Anyone coming to Long Beach Island who just cannot wait to get in the water usually heads straight to Ship Bottom, just over the Causeway. It is there, on Seventh Street, where those swimmers have likely encountered lifeguard veteran Rick Zanes, or “Z-Man,” before wading out over the luxurious sandbar.
His chair is difficult to miss, as there is usually an entourage of friendly faces surrounding it. Zanes is sure to befriend everyone under his watch. At 65, Zanes is now finishing up his 12th season lifeguarding in Ship Bottom, and has earned his place as a respected elder.
Lifeguarding is often a teenager’s first job. Zanes, however, pursued lifeguarding after retirement, during what he calls the best summer of his life. Why? Because he was dared to. Here is the story:
Zanes grew up in Deptford, where he played Little League baseball. “I spent half of freshman year pitching and covering center field,” he explained. “Halfway through the year, the track coach asked me after a game to run a half-mile. I never ran before. I ran a 2:09. I pitched a no-hitter that game, and I never pitched again in my life. They switched me to track and field the next day.” He smiled, “I made the right move. By 10th grade I was running a 4:25-minute mile.”
His track career earned him nine scholarships at some of the most elite schools in the country. After ruling out Columbia because of his aversion to living in the city, he wound up studying forestry and park administration at Clemson University in South Carolina. During those four years, he ran competitively. His best mile was 4:06 minutes, and then he became a “half-miler,” achieving a 1:49-minute half-mile.
After graduating, Zanes parted ways with his college sweetheart to return home to Deptford in search of work. “One of my neighbors was the manager of UPS in South Philly, so he got me a job.” He acquired the name Z-Man on his third day at UPS, and the name followed him all the way to the beach, decades later. “I stayed with UPS for 30 years, from age 22 to 52,” he said. “And I never got engaged again,” he laughed. “I’m just hanging out with the boys. They’re like my kids.”
In addition to being athletic, Zanes is also a talented musician who played the clarinet and tenor sax. He was a Mummer for 15 consecutive years with the Quaker City String Band, performing in Philadelphia for every New Year’s Day Parade. He eventually moved on from that which he described as “a drinking gig” to pursue a more healthy and active lifestyle.
Zanes pushed himself until he was running marathons. In 1978, he competed in the 18 Mile Run on LBI, coming in sixth place. The following year, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon with a time of 2:43. He beat that time in the Boston Marathon, running a 2:36. “I ran heavy duty until I was 32, and then my knee started bothering me,” he explained. “I had to either give up the (UPS) truck, or give up running heavy duty.” His job took priority, and he scaled back on running, only doing 5 miles every Saturday.
In 1993, Zanes purchased his parents’ home in Little Egg Harbor, which was custom-built by his family. Though he lived in Little Egg full time, he still delivered all the way to Salem Nuclear Plant for UPS. He drove about 350 miles a day for 14 years, until he retired in 2006 at 53 years old. He spent retirement time running and fishing in Ship Bottom.
When asked what prompted him to start swimming, he said with a playful smile, “Anastasia.”
He elaborated, “I went fishing on June 1, 2006, right on Ninth Street. It was raining, and Anastasia was running down the beach. She was a 21-year-old college student in an exchange program from Kaliningrad, Russia. She was gorgeous. I had a 12-pound striper and she went bananas, like she never saw a fish before. She spoke to me for a while and the sun came out. She took a couple pictures with her camera and that was it.”
A month later, Zanes returned to fish for flounder and Anastasia was there, taking her swim test to become a lifeguard. He remarked, “She was a good swimmer. I could barely swim the length of the pool!”
Zanes admitted being charmed by Anastasia. “She had gotten the job, and was sitting up there in the chair. She needed somebody to take her for groceries. I would have been a fool to say no.” Within just a few days, they developed a fondness for each other. “I became her personal chauffeur for the summer, and I had a great time doing it,” he recalled. “And in exchange, she took care of my house like a grandma! She was big-time old-fashioned. She cleaned, cooked and baked.”
Anastasia spent a lot of time at Zanes’ home because she lived in a house with nine men. Zanes explained that if she had been forced to spend her entire summer in that situation, she would have quit and gone home early. Zanes knew he needed to take advantage of the little time he would have with her. “We stayed platonic, of course, because she had a life back in Russia and a year of college left.”
Not only did Zanes drive Anastasia for errands, he became her U.S. tour guide, showing her all the sights in the Northeast. He reminisced, “I took her everywhere I could think of within five hours on her days off. She liked Bucks County and Washington, D.C. I had nothing better to do, and I knew she would never be back here again. Best summer of my life, man, 2006.”
The last American experience Zanes shared with Anastasia was a high school football game. “I took her to the first Friday night football game at Southern Regional, Sept. 27 of 2006. She loved that more than anything. She’d never seen a football game before: the band, the cheerleaders, all the fanfare and the colors. She went nuts with her camera,” he recalled. “Then I took her to Newark Airport the next morning, Sept. 28. She gave me a hug and said, ‘Rick, I’ll see you next year.’” He guffawed, “Well, I’m still waiting!”
Zanes explained the entire summer season he spent with Anastasia, she challenged him to learn to swim. “She’d swim way out, and I’d be sinking trying to catch up to her. She busted on me all summer for not being able to swim. She said I’d never have her job.”
A lifetime competitive athlete, he accepted the challenge. “I figured if I could run a 4:06 mile and a 1:09 half-mile, I could learn how to swim. But it wasn’t easy. It was very difficult.” He laughed. “And that’s what happened. She dared me to do it, so I did.”
Shortly after Anastasia’s departure, Zanes fished in the fall surf derby on LBI, and then headed to Florida to spend the winter with his parents. He joined the gym with his father, where he would run. One morning, the Indian River State College swim coach came into the gym and Zanes’ father introduced them. “He was a retired Marine in his early 40s. We got to talking and he asked what I did all my life, so I told him my story. I mentioned Anastasia’s dare and he goes, ‘Rick, looking at you, I’ll have you swimming in three months.’”
With that, Zanes committed to a 5:30 a.m. swim class for ages 40 and older, five days a week for three months. “He was very regimented,” Zanes recalled, “but he treated me respectfully because I was older than him. I told him to treat me like a new recruit in the Marines, instead, so he did.”
Zanes returned home just in time to take the swim test to become an LBI lifeguard, but failed by 20 seconds. “So I had to continue pool swimming for another year, to build my endurance and gain a little weight,” he explained. It took Zanes two years to pass his swim test. “My rookie year, I was 54. This is my 12th season. So I’ll stick with it as long as I can pass the test.”
He said with a laugh, “I’m 65. If I quit, I’m going to become my age quickly.” In addition to staying physically fit, he believes being around young people keeps him young spirited.
In addition to lifeguarding, Zanes keeps fit by running a few miles several times a week at the Pinelands High School track. Even more impressively, Zanes is known to swim from Sixth Street to 26th Street in Ship Bottom about three times a week. Often, he will even jog that length and then swim back, until temperatures drop and he switches up his regimen. “I have a suit, and can make it until the water is 57 degrees. The air’s got to be 62, at least. I’ll swim first, and then jog back.”
After Halloween, Zanes moves his activity indoors, swimming laps at the St. Francis pool in Brant Beach, where he volunteers his time in a variety of ways, such as lifeguarding, helping with the food bank and driving a truck for the 18-mile race. He appreciates the ability to train in a facility where the environment is stable, so he is prepared for the spontaneity of the ocean. “The pool is always the same. The ocean has never been the same twice, as long as I’ve been swimming,” he explained.
Zanes enjoys coming back to the beach each season to patrol. With a few saves a season, he has rescued countless swimmers throughout his lifeguarding career. However, his biggest save happened while he was off duty. He was fishing in Florida, in 2011, when a boy got caught in a rip current. “I didn’t even think, I just reacted,” Zanes recalled. EMT responders were on the beach when he resurfaced with the unconscious boy, who was successfully resuscitated. The boy’s family brought trays upon trays of Brazilian food to express endless thanks to Zanes.
He appreciates the opportunity to befriend new guards and those visiting his beach every summer. Consequently, bathers on Seventh Street in Ship Bottom swim with peace of mind, knowing their friend, Z-Man, is looking after them. Beyond that, Zanes’ philosophy is quite simple: “Every day I thank the Lord I’m still here, and try to enjoy every day that I have.”
— Monique M. Demopoulos