Competition brought them together, but inspiration was a joyful by-product for three local women at different stages of their lives.
Jessica Wallace, Sylvia Wolff, and Maria Schiavello excelled at the U.S. Lifesaving Association national championships in August at Virginia Beach, each marveling at the other, as well as their fellow Outer Banks lifeguards and teammates.
“Ocean rescue attracts the type of person that is a bit of a free spirit, that is unique, that is driven, that is passionate and that enjoys the outdoors,” says Wolff, a 39-year-old mother of two daughters and a lifeguard here for the past 18 years. “Hanging out with that kind of person is good for the soul. I really enjoy interacting with the type of person that the job of ocean lifeguard attracts.”
Wallace, Wolff and Schiavello were part of the 30-member Outer Banks contingent that finished fourth in the team competition, less than one point out of third place behind the Virginia Beach team. It’s only the second year that all of the Outer Banks’ ocean rescue entities – from Corolla to Hatteras – competed under one umbrella, which bodes well for future cooperative lifesaving programs, as well as competitions.
“It’s empowering to get together with all of the people on the Outer Banks that have the same interest, passion and purpose as you do,” Wolff says. “I’m super excited to have seen the transition from individual agencies to unification and to the ability to represent the Outer Banks as a whole.”
Wolff won three events and finished second in five others, in the 35-39 age group. She also was part of the open women’s 4x100 beach relay team that finished sixth, with Wallace, Alexandra Rodman and Suki Holian. She finished fifth in age-group points out of 40 competitors.
Wallace finished second in the open women’s beach flags competition, losing to the four-time defending champion in the event. In addition to the 4x100 relay team, she was part of the open women’s rescue team that finished 10th, with Bailie Monahan, Amelie Roy, and Penelope Hawkins. She was 16th in total points out of 124 women.
Schiavello, a 56-year-old pediatric nurse and part-time lifeguard, won the women’s 2K beach run in the 55-59 age-group division. She had two second-places, in the women’s board race and the iron woman competition, and three third-places. She was 14th in age-group points out of 40 competitors.
A pretty fair debut for someone whose first lifesaving competition was in July at the regionals in Nags Head and who became a certified lifeguard only this year.
“I’m doing it all backwards,” she says with a chuckle.
Schiavello, a Philadelphia native who transplanted to Kill Devil Hills with her family in 2013, played field hockey and lacrosse at Ohio State and has always been athletic. She coached youth sports when her three children were young, but began to work out more diligently as they got older and went away to college.
She was encouraged to compete by longtime Nags Head fire captain John Kenny, who also trained with her at times. She is friends with Duck Surf Rescue director Mirek Dabrowski’s wife, Shannon, who invited her to compete for the Duck team at the regionals.
“It wasn’t hard for me to do these events,” Schiavello says. “When people encouraged me to do it, I says, alright, I’ll try and see if I can do it. I didn’t get tired. I did pretty well in some of them. It was fun. It all fits.”
Part of her training, she says, was watching Wolff and trying to do what she did. The two met and became training partners in the weeks between the regionals and nationals. They have tentative plans to work out during the winter and next spring, when their respective schedules allow.
“She’s an amazing woman,” Wolff says of Schiavello. “I do enjoy her company. And she’s so level. She’s so evenly-keeled, and always smiling. She’s so enthusiastic about everything, about learning to paddle, about learning to kayak a surf ski, about learning to ride waves, about learning to sit in a lifeguard stand.”
Schiavello works 12-hour shifts, three days a week at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, giving her four days a week at home. During late summer and early fall, she often spent one day a week in a lifeguard stand in Duck, filling in as youngsters returned home or to college. She sees herself continuing to lifeguard, as a way of giving back to the community, and she certainly will continue to compete.
“If you’re an athlete adult woman, it’s so nice to see other women who are doing what you do,” she says. “I’m fortunate that I can still do it. There are some women who are as active as I am, but I’m very fortunate and still grateful that I can do it.”
Wolff, too, will continue to compete as long as her body allows, though her focus has shifted a bit in recent years. The Columbus, Ohio native moved to the Outer Banks in 2001 and was director of Corolla Ocean Rescue from 2004-14. She graduated from Purdue with a degree in elementary education and is now a teacher at Water’s Edge Village School in Corolla, a charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade. She still runs the junior lifeguard program in Corolla and is a training officer with Duck Surf Rescue.
“I compete because it’s all I’ve ever done,” she says. “I don’t know any differently. I compete because I like my daughters to see that there’s a lot of options in life. You can pursue your passion always, and you can incorporate your passion into your lifestyle.
“I’m still competitive in several open events. It’s nice to still be able to compete with kids half my age. It’s inspiring and keeps me going.”
Competition attracted Wallace to lifeguarding. The youngster of the trio at age 21, the Kitty Hawk native accompanied a friend to a local lifeguarding skills competition in Duck while in high school and was hooked. She was an outstanding athlete at First Flight High School, excelling at soccer, track and cross country. She is in her senior year at Meredith College in Raleigh, where she was an all-conference soccer player and the team’s offensive MVP her first three years.
Wallace is inspired by people such as Wolff and Schiavello, twice her age or more, with full-time jobs and families, working out and competing.
“They’re a good example for all of us,” she says.
Lifeguarding, she says, has aided her in many ways. It’s improved her focus, helped her communicate better, and taught her responsibility — all valuable qualities as she climbs into adulthood and toward her goal of becoming a teacher. If possible, she, too, plans to continue competing for the foreseeable future.
“I hope to continue to be an athlete and work out,” Wallace says. “I plan on swimming in the ocean when I’m 95. I don’t know if I’ll still be competing, but I’ll still be active.”