SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Methuen native Cris "Spike" Dobrosielski's presence along the Salisbury shoreline was a given every summer from the time he was 9 years old.
A year removed from losing his father, Vincent, a young Dobrosielski looked to the lifeguards of Salisbury as role models. Too young to be a professional lifeguard — Dobrosielski would have to wait until his 17th birthday for that mark of passage — he was honored as Salisbury Beach's first junior lifeguard. As he strolled the beaches, he learned from the best and was taught about the ocean.
"The guards of Salisbury stepped in and provided more friendship, guidance and love than you could imagine," said Dobrosielski, mentioning the friendships he shared with older guards like Craig Weir, Patrick Griffin and Ron Simmons.
In essence, Dobrosielski has been wearing orange shorts his entire life.
Now 41 and living in San Diego, Dobrosielski, the same lifeguard who hounded the older teens for attention and earned CPR certificates years before he was even technically eligible to protect North Shore waters, is in a league of his own.
A multiple-event winner in the 2002 and 2004 World Lifesaving Association Championships and the 2009 United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) National Lifeguard Champion in the International Ironman competition (40-44 age division), Dobrosielski, a personal and group fitness trainer, has made a living of pushing his body and mind to the utmost limits, while subsequently teaching others the craft of enjoying life at every age and ability level.
Dobrosielski once again found himself matched up against the best watermen the world has to offer at this year's USLA National Lifeguard Competition held at Huntington Beach, earning a third place finish in the men's run-swim-run competition (40-44 age division).
Currently serving as a team leader for the San Diego city lifesaving competition team, working as a volunteer strength and conditioning coach for the San Diego canoe and kayak Olympic development team, and running his own strength and conditioning company called Monumental Results Inc., Dobrosielski's career path rolled in various directions before his true calling emerged.
A former basketball star at Governor Dummer Academy (now The Governor's Academy), Dobrosielski went to New York's Hartwick College to pursue his passion for the basketball court, but after a single semester, his distance from the sea and his fellow lifeguards began to wear on him. Dobrosielski determined that he needed to pursue a different educational experience.
"I was never very comfortable being more than a stone's throw from the sea," said Dobrosielski, who credits his mother, Helen, for her unwavering support.
He enrolled at Northern Essex Community College, graduated with high honors, and soon departed to the West Coast where his love for the sea, lifeguarding and triathlon competition was a year-round endeavor.
He enrolled at San Diego State University and walked on as a member of the Division 1 cross country team, eventually winning a Western Athletic Conference Student-Athlete Award.
Upon graduating with a bachelor's degree in psychology, other opportunities presented themselves. However, in spite of hours spent coaching high school-level track and cross country, he continued his career as a lifeguard along the beaches of La Jolla, Calif., and maintained a competitive lifestyle of distance running and lifesaving competition.
Weir, a resident of Salisbury who served as a lifeguard supervisor for many years along the Salisbury coastline, remembers the days when a young Dobrosielski would show up unannounced for morning training sessions.
"Not sure what his age was, but he was always just hanging with the lifeguards. The guys liked him, so we'd let him come in for the morning workouts," said Weir. "He became a great lifeguard and was always a real good person."
With Dobrosielski's strong athletic background, Weir isn't surprised that his former lifeguard went on to more challenging waters.
"In order to get a job on the West Coast lifeguarding, you have to be good. They have real stringent testing and interviews, and obviously he made the grade," said Weir. "We're proud of him."
Dobrosielski, who has had back problems from years of competition and training, acknowledges that while injuries and responsibilities may alter one's routine and passions in life, other options are always readily available to those willing to try something new.
It is this mentality that has enabled Dobrosielski to lay the foundation for writing a book, a project he has been working on for years.
"The premise of the book is that as we get older, we are going to experience change and loss in our bodies and in our life. We can roll over, quit, complain and act helpless, or 'we can survey the scene of our own lives,'" explained Dobrosielski, using a common lifeguarding phrase.
"The book focuses on the importance of turning corners in your life, and looking at the changes and loss as an exchange and not just as a deficit," he said. "My goal is to educate, empower and encourage people how to keep playing the sports and activities they love longer in life through a well-balanced fitness routine and a willingness to work with the changes that occur in their life."
The goal of the book, he said, "is to give back to institutions," like the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club and the JCC, that helped him during his personal and athletic development.
The hardship of accepting your limitations and introducing new forms of activity is a way of life Dobrosielski is hoping to share.
A runner his entire life, Dobrosielski went for a walk with his wife, Jemadean, through the rolling hills and woods near his home a week before the USLA competition. Their stroll cut along and past many cross country trails he had run over the years, and was no longer able to run because of back pain. He said he eyed the trails with fond memories but then casually dismissed them.
"I still miss certain activities that don't work for my 41-year-old body, but I literally I try to count my blessings and focus on the things I can do," said Dobrosielski. "Besides, it can't hold a flame to walking hand in hand with my wife."