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the day everything changed

The boy was aged about fourteen, a kid from Waverley College doing an unending series of supervised laps of Bondi Baths under the hard eye and stopwatch of Sep Prosser.

Big, tall and blackly handsome Sep standing like a statue at the handball end of the pool watching each of us swimming hard enough to beat the shark. Lap after lap.

Lap after unending lap.

Nothing we did was good enough for Sep, two seconds quicker on the last lap meant we could swim two seconds quicker on the next. Then the next.

Then the next.

Suck and blow, air in and air out, pumping four kicks for each breath then six on the sprint to the wall. Sep wanted bow-waves from his swimmers. Only exhaustion pleased him.

This boy took a break at the oceanside end of the pool one day, his arms resting on the seawall, heaving with breath, blowing hard. Dodging the cascades of water thrown up by waves hitting the edge.

Then he heard somebody laughing out in the bay amongst the boil of breaking waves – saw a surfboard flipping up and over in the whitewater. Watched the man who lost it swim ashore without stopping, picking up broken water and body-surfing to the beach.

Sep was shouting.

The boy looked out beyond the break and saw a half-dozen men sitting out there on their boards, heard their laughter amongst the commotion of breaking waves. Watched them swivel around so easy when an unbroken swell looped into the bay then paddle onto it, catch it. Stand up on it. Ride it all the way to the shore.

Sep was shouting.

A few years later we met, Sep and I, he’d been coaching swimmers for the 1956 Olympics and showed a professional interest in the depth of my suntan, the length of my hair and breadth of my young shoulders.

Knowing without asking why I never returned to his laps and stopwatch after that day.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Terry Jenkings #

    Many made that exit Pete, down the rusty ladder, through the bogey hole, across the reef and to the freedom of the South End. ….I think Sep understood that there was more to life than extended breathing techniques and blowing bubbles while pulling through without making a splash.
    However, the escape to the surf sure had benefits and many of the characters who gathered as a tribe at the South End went onto become bigger legends than the lap swimmers.

    March 8, 2019
  2. Phil “Specs” Norris was another. He got hauled in front of a Bondi Beach Marist Brothers (St Anne’s) assembly and was given 6 of the best by Brother Walter who then, to Phil’s delight , kicked him out of the swimming squad.

    March 8, 2019
  3. Des O'Connor #

    Very familiar memory for me Pete, just replace Sep Prosser name with Phil Rothman.

    March 11, 2019
  4. Surfing was the only sport where you got to coach yourself, and every time you did something stupid all you earned was laughter from the old boys and a piss-take from your mates. But that was then.

    March 11, 2019
  5. Hippy #

    Yup, PB, there is an epiphany when you realize that coach is suffocating your life not building you. Freedom is just outside his voice range. And when freedom is so much fun, you can’t remember why there was any coaching.

    So nice to read you.

    March 11, 2019

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