Australia has won eight Olympic medals in 1,000m kayak racing. It owes much of that success to another sport altogether – surf life saving.
Based on the training regime developed by beach lifeguard services across the country, surf ski racing has become an established pathway for paddlers to progress to kayak racing on the Olympic stage.
Sprint kayaking isn’t the only Olympic sport to have benefited from the size and strength of surf lifesaving – at the London Games in 2012 more than 60 Australian athletes in the country’s swimming, water polo, rowing and kayaking teams declared a background in competitive surf lifesaving.
Indeed, Australia’s first surf life saving Olympic star was a swimmer – Freddie Lane, who won two golds at the 1900 Paris Games. He became one of Australia’s earliest rescue swimmers in Sydney when public bathing was legalised in the early 20th century.
More than a hundred years on, surf life saving’s role as a training ground for future Olympic kayakers is well established. A carefully structured club system helps youngsters progress through the ranks to elite level and Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) works closely with the Australian Canoeing High Performance Unit and the Australian Canoeing National Elite Development Program to identify talented young paddlers early in their careers.
“Canoeing has benefited from the natural reservoir of sporting talent in the surf for decades,” said Richard Fox, National Performance Director of Australian Canoeing.
“The established partnership between Surf Lifesaving and Australian Canoeing and the significant national investment from the AIS in our pathway and high performance programs means that more surf athletes are taking up opportunities in canoe sprint and are being supported by Australian Canoeing through to the podium,” Fox added.
The relationship between the two bodies is seen as a win-win for each as Olympic success fuels public interest and inspires the next generation to participate in both sports.
Such has been the growth in popularity of surf life-saving that the Aussies, the national surf life-saving championships, now feature more than 7,000 competitors from over 300 surf clubs across Australia, taking part in more than 400 events at all ages.
Many of the team heading for the Olympic Games in Rio next month have a surf background, as do many of their forebears, participants and medallists at Olympic Games over the past 60 years. Some of the best-known surf life savers went on to Olympic success – including Ken Vidler (8th place in K4 1,000m Moscow 1980), Dennis Heussner (K4 1,000m semi finals in Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976) and, more recently, medallists Clint Robinson, Ken Wallace, David Smith and Murray Stewart.
The surf connection is particularly strong in the Australian women’s team – competing in Rio will be Naomi Flood, Alyce Burnett and Alyssa Bull, all three prolific surf lifesaving competitors and widely seen as great role models for female athletes aiming for Tokyo and beyond.
The first surf life saver to win Olympic gold was almost Grant Davies (K1 1,000m Seoul 1988). He was awarded first place after crossing the line but the decision was reversed by line judges, awarding him second place by a margin of just 0.005 seconds, probably the tightest margin ever to decide an Olympic final).
It was Clint Robinson who became Australia’s first gold medal kayaker, racing at the next edition of the Games (K1 1,000m in Barcelona 1992), and today he’s arguably the best known of Australia’s surf-schooled Olympians. He went on to win two more Olympic medals, a bronze in 1996 and a silver in 2004 as well as four world championship medals. Based at Maroochydore Surf Life Saving Club and now a globally recognised surf ski coach, his record of five Olympic Games and World Champion status in five different paddle sports (sprint kayaking, SLS spec ski, ocean ski, SLS board and six-man outrigger) is an unmatched record.
Before Robinson, Australia’s first kayaking medallists, Dennis Green and Walter ‘Wally’ Brown, were also surf life savers. The pair, who took a bronze in the 10,000m doubles event (no longer an Olympic discipline) had never travelled abroad to race anyone over the Olympic distance before taking part in the final at Melbourne in 1956.
Green, now 85, dominated sprint kayaking for 20 years as well as picking up dozens of ski titles during a paddling career that lasted decades. He still trains three times a week and attributes his success in sprint to his background in surf.
“You’ve always needed guts in surf,” says Green. “That’s because as a surf life saver you have to go out whatever the sea. It takes a certain kind of hardness to do that. We trained to save lives and in the days before jet boats, helicopters and whatnot, we knew if you didn’t paddle out and get there in time, people would die.”
Plain-talking Green, who had a more than 30 year career as a coach and administrator, still mentors today’s Olympic kayakers, enjoying a particularly close bond with Ken Wallace and the rest of the men’s K4 1,000m crew hoping to defend the title won in London.
“I’m in the background these days but we have a bond, we’ve come from surf and we know what it takes to make it in Olympic kayaking,” says Green. “It’s half physical and half mental, I believe mentally surf instils toughness in people, gives us the attitude we need to succeed. Traditional kayakers may not like it, but that’s just how it is.”
Written by Guy Dresser