Spending more than half his life on the beach and having interests ranging from acting to philanthropy have paid dividends for Hewlett resident Cary Epstein, who was recently named the New York State Lifeguard of the Year.
Epstein, 37, earned the award for his 20 years of service as a Jones Beach guard — with zero drownings during his tenure, as noted on his award banner. He is a lifeguard supervisor, and for the past decade has directed the junior lifeguard competitive team at Jones Beach. He is also a lieutenant and certified emergency medical technician with the Hewlett Fire Department as well as a cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructor, and runs a charitable foundation.
“It’s an honor,” Epstein said on the phone last week from Daytona Beach, Fla., where he was competing in the U.S. Lifesaving Association National Lifeguard Championships and coaching the junior Jones Beach team, which comprises the 64 top members of a junior lifeguard program with 350 participants ranging in age from 9 to 16.
“I was looking at the pictures of the past winners, and I’m one of the youngest in New York state,” said the Lifeguard of the Year.
The Lifeguard of the Year award is presented at the annual Long Island Lifeguard Championships at Smith Point County Park in Shirley. This year the event took place on July 31. “Cary was chosen by our committee because of what he does for kids,” said Bob Kolar, who heads the Smith Point lifeguards. “He’s a good lifeguard, runs a charity for kids and competes on a national level. He’s an outstanding guy.”
A swimmer at Hewlett High School, Epstein was encouraged by his coach, Gregg Solnick, to become a lifeguard. Solnick, who teaches phys. ed. at the school and coaches the boys’ swim team, said that Epstein has always been a compassionate person and eager to help people.
“I always talk about lifeguarding to the members of my swim teams, because it’s a great way to earn extra money and have fun in the summer while helping others,” Solnick said. “Cary seemed like a perfect fit. I’ve been lifeguarding for 35 years. It’s a way of life for me, so I always try to get the students I teach and coach into it. Cary bought into it.”
“Nothing beats getting paid to be at the beach,” Epstein said. “It’s the best office in the world.” But there is danger there, too, and like so many of his Jones Beach colleagues, he been involved in hundreds of rescues over the years.
“There is a lot of danger, and rip currents are one of them at Long Island beaches,” he said. “People aren’t strong swimmers, and push their limits. This isn’t a pool.” And, he said, “Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol aren’t a good mix at the beach.”
Off the sand, Cary, his brother, Ian, his sister, Ilissa, and their mother, Shelly, created the My Actions Can Help Others, or MACHO, Foundation in 2014 to honor their father, Scott Epstein, who was killed in a car accident in East Rockaway in December 2013. The foundations raises money to help underprivileged children. “My goal is to help others,” Cary said.
To stay in top shape and to challenge himself, Epstein began competing in Ironman triathlons — swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles — in 2010.
Three and a half years ago, Mordecai Eliyahu, who owns Lifeguard Training NY in Lawrence, met Epstein at a Hewlett house fire. (Eliyahu volunteered for the Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department.) “He’s not just about lifeguarding, he’s about public service,” Eliyahu said. “He loves teaching, and with his experience, he knows how to explain this stuff very well.”
This year, Epstein established his own company, the Epi-Center for Emergency Training + Event, which provides a wide range of services, from lifeguard training to certification to staffing a variety of events that require lifeguards, such as open-water swims and triathlons.
He also got a chance to do some acting in the recent movie “Baywatch,” which starred Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. “That was really cool and awesome,” Epstein said. He played an EMT on the TV series “Quantico” in 2015 and was in the short-lived series “Mobbed” in 2011. Is there another acting gig in his future? “You just never know,” he said.
In the meantime, there are a few precious weekends of summer remaining, and many swimmers to watch over. And, said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, what lifeguards such as Epstein do should not be taken lightly.
“Few of us can say that we have saved one life, but Cary has saved over a thousand,” Kaminsky said. “It’s hard to estimate the impact that his selfless service has had on the greater South Shore community. It’s great to see that we’re not taking our lifeguards for granted, and that his exceptional work is being highlighted through this award.”