For five weeks in a row Natalie Gold is at the beach each morning, but she’s not there to work on her tan.

The Santa Monica High School student is having fun and spending time with friends, but she’s also developing critical skills as she participates in the county fire department’s junior lifeguard program.

She hones her ocean swimming abilities. She works on her physical conditioning. She learns about water safety, first aid and CPR.

“They teach you how to save lives,” Gold said.

Gold hopes that she’ll never have to rescue someone from real danger, but she understands the importance of the preparation. And she’ll be putting her experience to use in a variety of elite lifeguarding competitions this summer.

Later this month, Gold will take part in the California Surf Lifesaving Association’s championships in Huntington Beach.

Meanwhile, she was recently named to the United States Lifesaving Association’s under-19 High Performance Lifeguard Squad, a collection of top junior lifeguards from across the country. In August she’ll travel to Daytona Beach, Florida, for a national competition.

Depending on her upcoming performances, Gold also has a chance to compete in the World Lifesaving Championships, which will be held in the Netherlands in 2016.

Gold has found success at the California and U.S. competitions the last two summers, earning a dozen state and national medals for her efforts in a variety of events.

But that’s not why she decided to become a junior lifeguard.

“It makes you a better swimmer, and it gives you confidence in yourself,” she said, noting the guidance of advisors like Steve Contarsy and John Baltz. “The instructors are so amazing, and they help you with life lessons — not just swimming. They support you. They will always be there for you. (The program) teaches you to work as a team and be part of a community. That bond will never be broken.”

Gold’s foray into lifeguarding began about six years ago, when she was 10. She was following in the footsteps of her older brother, who was also a junior lifeguard, but what started as an outlet for making new friends and spending time in the water turned into a serious passion.

About three years ago, Gold qualified for the regional team and joined a relay squad.

“I loved it,” she said. “I was hooked.”

Gold is an active Girl Scout and interested in engineering — for her Gold Award project, she educated her female peers about opportunities in the male-dominated field — but she finds time to pursue her love of watersports. She excels not only as a junior lifeguard but also as a swimmer at Samohi and as a member of the Westside Aquatics club.

Gold is looking forward to her summer slate of lifeguarding competitions, which feature partner events like rescue relays as well as distance swims, paddling, running and Ironman combos.

She said she’s had fun traveling up and down the Southern California coast and visiting the East Coast for lifeguarding events.

Mostly, though, she enjoys the feeling of traveling out into the ocean.

“It’s really exciting,” she said.

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, or on Twitter.

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