People in Your Neighborhood: Meet La Jolla Lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky

Editor’s Note: Welcome to La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series, which shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to editor@lajollalight.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.

Of La Jolla Lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky, his colleagues say he’s one of the few in his position who still works out and makes sure he’s in the physical shape required to make rescues and complete all levels of a lifeguard’s job. This local fixture on the beach scene surprises you every time with his kind demeanor and profound words. He’s been in charge of the lifeguards in the 92037 ZIP code for four years.

Where are you from?

“I was born in San Gabriel Valley, California, so I grew up traveling around in Pasadena, Arcadia and that area, and then after two years of junior college, I moved to San Diego in 1985, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Did you go to college here?

“Yes, I got my Associate’s degree at Mount San Antonio College, and I came to San Diego State to study journalism with a concentration in public relations, and I minored in economics. (Having studied journalism) it’s a plague, because even as a seasonal lifeguard, they used to call me and this other guy ‘The Grammar Police.’ We would go around correcting people all the time, and lifeguards aren’t always well written (laughs).”

What made you become a lifeguard?

“I’ve always had a passion for the water. I grew up surfing in Newport and Huntington Beaches, and everything about the ocean — scuba diving, swimming, sailing — it’s just a passion. That, combined with wanting to help people and be there when people are in need, it’s such a blessing to be in a position like that. I started as a seasonal and ended up being promoted to permanent, 12 years later, and during my seasonal years, after I graduated from college, I started to travel the world and I ended up moving to Taiwan, where I lived for eight years.”

How was Taiwan?

“It was fantastic, it’s such a great place, people are so friendly and warm. I had people interrupt me when having dinner, say, ‘Are you from America?’ They wanted to speak English. They would offer to buy dinners for you out of nowhere, they are really welcoming, really friendly, and the food is insane. There’s a lot of great things about Taiwan.

I would be here in the summer working as a seasonal and then going to Taiwan in the winter and then on each end just tagging along a lot of traveling, different countries, surfing, scuba diving. I traveled everywhere from Russia to the South Pacific, Asia … great opportunity during that time. Seasonal years are very flexible as a lifeguard, so I always encourage people to take advantage of it, because it takes a little while to become competitive for the lifeguarding side, you could be a seasonal for five to 10 years potentially before a permanent position opens, so you have to take advantage of it, that’s what I try to tell people.”

What do you do for fun?

“Well, I work for fun (laughs). I mean, kind of, I just love my job. I love coming in to work, but for fun outside of this, anything in the ocean, I love motorcycles, I’m passionate about that, and anything in the mountains, skiing, I’m open to just about anything new and different.”

What motorcycle do you have?

“I have a KTM 1190, it’s an adventure bike. I’ve taken it to 12 or 14 states so far, and I’ve had this bike for one year, and I have 16,000 miles on it already. I’ve been exploring and it’s a lot of fun.”

Are you married, kids?

“I’m married. I have my wonderful wife, Kirsten, and two kids, a 13-year-old boy, Jake, and an 11-year-old girl, Taylor.”

Where do you live?

“We live currently in Rancho Peñasquitos; my wife and I lived here in La Jolla for quite a while on Cabrillo Avenue, until we decided that we were going to buy a house, and that wasn’t happening in La Jolla (laughs). We love it out there, it’s nice, but eventually some time will be back more coastal.”

Tell me about your surfing. Were you ever a pro?

“I’m definitely not of that caliber, just for fun. My first trip out of the United States was the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti. And I actually went and lifeguarded on the coast and surfed all over the place. Those were the days, just getting out there and that’s what it was all about: surfing.”

How has La Jolla changed?

“There are challenges on the lifeguard side at times because it gets crowded, and it seems like it’s gotten a lot more crowded over the years. Surf camps are generating a lot of interest in surfing, and the scuba divers, well, La Jolla’s a great place to do it. There’s a lot of great things here, so people just keep coming.”

What are some of the challenges of lifeguarding?

“The biggest killer out there is going to be the rip currents. People not understanding what a rip current is, which is basically a river pulling out to sea. If you swim against the river, you’re going to get tired, and you’re going to end up giving up. Swimming to the banks of the river is what we want to educate people about. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that well, so the ocean takes people at times, but we do everything we can to prevent that. There’s a lot of hazards around, one of the big things over the years has been an increase in cliff rescues. People are accidentally falling from cliffs, or they’re going on false trails or whatever.”

How do you handle the shark craze?

“That’s an interesting topic right now, because there have been a lot of sightings in other places. Obviously, we have a lot of sightings around, thank goodness no aggressive behavior. A couple years back, we had the hammerheads drawn in by fishermen; the fish they had were bleeding, which is what attracted the sharks, and so the fishermen paddled back to shore. Not a good thing to do, so that was an education thing. Hey, clean your fish way out there, don’t come trolling in with bloody fish. But lately, no serious shark sightings of aggressive behavior or anything out of the ordinary, especially considering how many sea lions and seals live in the area.

If people ask, ‘are there sharks out there?’ absolutely. I mean, we know they live out there. But looking back at history, there’s really not that much of a threat around that. The sharks history in the lifeguard service is that they’re not something that has created a problem, I know North County has had some bad experiences with that.”

What’s your hope for the future?

“My family is the most important thing in my life, so my hope is that my kids grow up to be healthy and happy — and I extend that to everybody. I wish for people to be a little less busy and little more real.”

What’s something people don’t know about you?

“People are kind of surprised when they find out that I’m fluent in Mandarin Chinese.”

What do you dislike about your job?

“That’s a tough question to answer. I think what I dislike most job is when bad things happen to people. I’ve been a member of the dive team since 2000, and our job with that is, we do rescues, but most often than not it’s recovery. The ocean is big and we’re looking for a needle in a haystack a lot of the time. But that aspect of my job is so important, to be there for the families, to bring closure. And it’s also hard because it takes a lot out of us ... you feel the pain of the family. It’s hard but rewarding to know you can make the worst moment in somebody’s life a little better by the compassion that we have and doing everything we possibly can.”

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