JOHN McNAMEE TALKS TO A FIVE-TIME OLYMPIAN AND PADDLING LEGEND
If any modern day athlete had to overcome the difficulties and traumas faced by legendary ski paddler Dennis Green in getting to the first of his five Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, there wouldn’t be anyone marching behind the Aussie flag these days.
First of all, they didn’t want him there.
He and his kayak paddling partner Wally Brown had upset the canoeing elite and sent a chill through the international competitors by recording record times in the many lead up test time-trial events.
They were regarded by the tight-knit Olympic official movement as tearaway, ratbag surf lifesavers who didn’t fit the sedate image of the gentle craft of still-water canoe paddling.
Then they told him he had to have a special craft built to conform to the standards and Dennis and Wally had to apply to the Swedish Consulate in Sydney to import special kayak specifications from Sweden.
“When the plans arrived finally, we ripped up the carpet in Wally’s lounge room and took off the French doors to the front verandah so we could lay out all the wood for the hull and struts and start building,” Dennis told Go55s.
“Luckily I’d done a carpentry apprenticeship and between us we put the first double kayak together and we could get on with training. We were using special 1/8th inch cordwood ply, the same stuff they used on the wartime Mosquito bombers. The single ski was 5.2m and the double 6.8m.
“We didn’t have any formal coaching for the Olympics but we’d been competing in the double surf ski for our surf club, Maroubra and had won a swag of Australian titles.
“We didn’t have any money for any special equipment or for fares to travel to the training and test event areas. We had to rely on our mates,” he said.
“But luckily we met up with swim coach Forbes Carlile who was also a pioneer in the sports science area and he was able to streamline our diet, training and cardiovascular regimes,” he said.
By the time the Games were ready to start in Melbourne, with the whole of Australia agog at the thought of the splendid spectacle about to unfold and the numerous local athletes who would etch their name in sporting history, the 25-year-old Dennis and his mate Wally had turned up at the rowing venue in country Ballarat.
Dennis Green in his heyday paddles on to a breaking wave in an international competition in Hawaii.
They still hadn’t received any coaching or competed against another crew, they’d only been training in time-trial test events … and their race inexperience was going to cost them heavily.
“There were 34 crews in our K2 event strung across Lake Wendouree and by the final 1000m turn we were out in front.
“But I said to Wally to ease down a bit because we didn’t want to blow out in a sprint finish but as we came around that turn, we had to go wide to abide by the 5m required space between boats and get into our correct lane. As we came down to the line we just couldn’t make up the distance,” he said.
The battle-hardened Hungarians, whose country had just been ruthlessly overrun by the Soviet tanks, came in first with Germany behind them and the Aussie duo hanging grimly on for third.
“The main thing was we’d beaten the Poms who had been saying some nasty things about us and not being very friendly at all.
“When we were on the podium, we suddenly realized as we saw the flags go up the poles that we’d won a Bronze medal but I remember saying to Wal : ‘just as well we didn’t win the gold mate or they’d be playing God Save the Queen for us instead of an Aussie anthem,” Dennis laughs. (Advance Australia Fair didn’t become the official Australian anthem until 30 years later.)
For the first-time Olympian, it had been a traumatic previous 10 years starting at the age of 15 when he was forced to run away from home when his war veteran father, became drunkenly abusive and threatened him with a trimming axe.
Penniless and homeless he lived in the Maroubra surf club for a year before moving in with various local families. “The surf club officials knew I was there but no-body wanted to tell me to go,” Dennis laughs.
Five-time kayak olympian and surf ski champion Dennis Green was recently inducted into the Australian surfing walk of fame at Sydney’s Maroubra beach.
Life picked up for him when he began his carpentry apprenticeship and had to cycle 25 kilometres to the northern beaches each day for work. It gave him a lifelong love of bicycles and he says if he hadn’t become a ski paddler he would have competed at a high level in cycling.
Things took on an even brighter hue at the age of 18 when he met the love of his life Shirley, who was then aged 16, and they’re still happily married 61 years later.
Dennis went on to compete in four more Olympics, variously in the singles, doubles and also K4s in Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964), Mexico (1968) and culminating in the ill-fated Munich Games in 1972 where he was honoured by being the Australian team’s flag bearer.
Dennis and his mates were also the first to fix rudders on their craft, an innovation that was to forge the way for the great Aussie paddlers of the modern era, including the dual Olympic champions Oarsome Foursome.
You can tell all the memories are still clear in the 83-year-old legend’s mind as we talk on the eve of his being inducted into the Australian Surfing Walk of Fame on Maroubra beach in Sydney’s south-east where he has been a lifetime member of the local surf club and one of its greatest surf heroes.
Already he is the only Australian to be inducted in the sport Hall of Fame for two sports, kayaking and surf lifesaving.
John McNamee gets some paddling tips from the old master Dennis Green
He was never able to repeat his medal triumph at the subsequent Games but as he ruefully admits “We were never beaten by a non-drug country.”
He was 41 when he competed at his last Olympics in Munich with fellow Aussie paddling legends, Dennis Heussner and Rodney Fox.
“I’ll never forget the horror of those Games….we’d been out on a training session and when we came back to the village we could see all the armed troops and from our quarters we could see the terrorists on the balcony of the Israeli headquarters just a short distance away.
Palestinian Black September terrorists murdered 11 Israeli team members and a German official in that dreadful massacre which unfolded before a horrified world.
“It gave it a special significance for me to carry the Aussie flag for that opening ceremony and as well as the sadness I’ll never forget the huge honour and pride I felt at the time to be leading out my teammates,” Dennis said.
They told Dennis after Munich that they wouldn’t be picking him for any more Olympics but in 1976 he became coach of the national kayak team. He’s spent the past 20 years in Queensland coaching at the state academy before returning to Sydney in 2012.
He now lives in a retirement village in Sydney’s Little Bay, a short drive from his beloved Maroubra beach where he still trains on his skis at least three times a week.
“Shirley and I are now back close to our two daughters and our four grandkids and the apple of my eye, little great-granddaughter Elyse,” Dennis says proudly.
Main picture Dennis Green still loves going for a daily paddle at the age of 83.