JOHN McNAMEE TALKS TO THE NEW NATIONAL HEAD OF AN ICONIC CENTURY OLD MOVEMENT
If Graham Ford thought he was going to get any special favours from his club-mates and family members when he was recently elected to the highly prestigious role of President of Surf Life Saving Australia, he was quickly disappointed.
“I’d just attended the Waverley Shield Nippers carnival the weekend after my appointment and we were back at the club afterwards when I finished up having to collect and stack all the glasses after the function,” Graham laughs. “That sure kept me busy! I didn’t have time to think how important I’d just become!!”
“Then the following weekend I was ‘on duty’ again but this time I was up on Nobby’s Beach in Newcastle watching Zoe and Hayley, two of my six grandchildren, take part in another junior carnival,” Graham explains.
“So it’s been business as usual, despite the fact I’m now the Big Boss as Zoe and Hayley told all their mates at Nobby’s the other day and insisted I get my photograph taken with about a hundred other local Nippers,” he says.
Graham is fiercely proud of his “sand-roots” background and still patrols at his home beach of Bronte, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. He is looking forward to celebrating 20 years as a Patrol Captain next season and he is in his 11th year as Club President.
Graham, 59, has also just returned from competing for his beloved Bronte SLSC in the Rescue 2010 World Lifesaving Titles in Alexandria, Egypt, where he won two Masters gold medals and an Open silver.
He won the Masters golds in the 130 years Surf Teams and 130 years Taplin events (which included former Olympian and long-time NSW surf champion Malcolm Allen) but he can’t wait to tell me the story about how, as an amost-60 year old, he not only competed in but almost won the gruelling Open Taplin four-person event (which consists of a ski, board, swim and run leg).
“Well, it was a bit of a shock because one of our Open Taplin competitors who’s about 30 years younger than me had to withdraw and the boys asked me to fill in and do the final run leg.
“Now I’m really a recreational cyclist and don’t fancy myself as a beach sprinter particularly at that elite level but I thought I might only have to run a short distance and hope for the best.
“When the officials pointed out the actual distance for the run leg I couldn’t believe it, particularly as I would be racing against some of Australia’s top ironman competitors.
“ As it happened, Bronte was coming second out of the water for the final leg with Northcliffe in front and Cronulla in third when I was tagged and I set off with luckily a bit of space behind me.. but all I could hear was the bloke from Cronulla coming up fast, breathing down my neck but I managed to hold on and literally collapsed over the line, badly pulling my hamstring in the process!
“But we got the silver and the boys had to carry me up off the beach to the first aid tent… but after that effort, I was feeling no pain.”
So, obviously, nobody could accuse this stalwart of not knowing his grass roots background on the beach and the latest triumph now of his career has been his election as only the sixth national president of the surf lifesaving movement in all of its 103 years.
His predecessors included such community giants as former judge Sir Adrian Curlewis, CVO, CBE who was in the job for several decades and Alan Whelpton, who also served a mammoth stint. Graham took over last month from another long-serving stalwart in Ron Rankin who retired after nine years.
“It’s an awesome responsibility and I’m quite overwhelmed by all the support I have received not just from my own area but all over,” Graham told Go55s.
“I realise it’s going to be pretty full-on and in fact my wife Trish jokingly commented: Ok, looks like I won’t be seeing much of you for another five years!
“Also it’s going to be hard to follow in the footsteps of such people as those former presidents who have established surf lifesaving as such an integral part of our communities and made it such a well-oiled machine,” he said.
Graham said one of his first priorities would be to implement a new strategy which would open up even more lines of communication between the volunteer surf lifesavers on the beaches and the top administration.
“It’s not much point being in charge of an organisation like SLSA and not keep listening to the people who are out there every weekend saving lives and preventing people getting into danger,” Graham said.
“Last season our volunteers surf lifesavers, and I stress that they are all volunteers, were responsible for more than 12,000 rescues all around Australia….in monetary terms that has been calculated to represent a saving to the community of something like three point six billion dollars,” he said.
“It’s important that the particular governments and society in general understand the benefits of those statistics.
“We have to keep getting the message across that we are all volunteers serving the local communities…we train kids to become Nippers, we train adults in bronze medallion and higher awards which are now workplace recognised.
“We also have to rely on local councils to keep supporting us by subsidising the surf clubs in purchasing vital surf lifesaving equipment and upgrading often dilapidated premises,” he said.
Graham brings many other skills to his new demanding role. He started off his working life as a trainee supply officer in the Royal Australian Navy but after three years left following a serious hip injury while playing rugby for the Navy team.
He went on to become a highly successful property valuer in the Bronte area and, after meeting a local girl, Trish and starting a family, was soon involved in the Nippers movement.
He did his bronze medallion in 1990, became a patrol captain featuring in many of Bronte’s spectacular and daring rescues over the subsequent years and later was elected club captain before becoming president.
Graham said his particular interest was in fostering the local junior talent and one of his proudest moments recently was one of Bronte’s young guns, Andrew Bowden being selected for the Australian team.
As well as his many corporate roles, Graham was on surf lifesaving’s National Board of Development for four years and is on the board of Southern area Westpac Surf Lifesaving Helicopter.
He’s also on Waverley Council’s safety committee and received the council’s scroll of honour for services to youth development and has been a Sydney Branch Surf Lifesaving Volunteer of the Year.
Graham, who now describes himself as semi-retired, said all of his five children, Katherine, 35, Melanie, 32, Alexandra, 26, Stephen, 30 and Geraldine, 24, have been involved in the surf lifesaving movement and like, himself, have benefited greatly from the national movement.
It’s no surprise that his six grandchildren (“and another one on the way!”) have also followed in their parents’ footsteps.
Graham also describes himself as a “traditionalist” and admitted he would hate to see the iconic red and yellow quartered surf lifesaving cap ever phased out.
Currently, there is a survey circulating among Sydney clubs requesting feedback from the members on whether the famous cap, which has been a symbol of dedication and bravery on Australian beaches for more than 100 years, should be replaced.
“Unfortunately alot of our younger members who often don’t have the sense of tradition that we do, see the famous cap as a bit daggy and they hate wearing it.
“It seems strange that this attitude should prevail and it’s a pity but I personally support keeping the cap and I’ll certainly continue to wear it with pride every time I go out on patrol…which may be not as often as I like now that I have this new demanding role,” he said.
“However, one of my major priorities will be to keep the channels of communication between the administration and the members open at all times and we’ll consider every possibility and listen to what we are being told,” Graham says.
And you get the feeling that whatever controversy crops up, this dedicated surf lifesaver and top level administrator, will handle it with the skill and diplomacy which has characterised his many years at the helm of the Bronte surf club.