SYDNEY, June 26 (Reuters) - Jo Brigden-Jones is hoping the skills and competitive spirit she forged in the thumping Australian surf will lead her to Olympic gold on more placid waters in London later this year.
Brigden-Jones and two of her team mates in Australia’s kayak team are members of the Manly Surf Life Saving Club, an elite group of volunteers called on to pluck distressed swimmers and surfers from the Pacific Ocean in good weather or bad.
Surf life saving clubs are not uniquely Australian but they form an essential and, in their iconic red and yellow skullcaps, a highly-visible thread in the social fabric of Australia’s many beachside communities.
Established in the early 1900s to watch over bathers as beach culture flourished, Australia’s 300-plus clubs have expanded into competitive sports including such as board riding, swiming and paddle races.
It was competitions like these that Bridgen-Jones, a 24-year-old nurse, started to develop the skills that have turned her into an Olympian.
“It’s tough when you face big surf or it’s freezing cold in the middle of winter,” she said from Moscow where she was racing in gusty conditions earlier this month.
“You have to be brave and tough it out ... It’s part of the Australian culture.”
London will be a first Olympics for Brigden-Jones, who will be competing in the women’s K4 500 - a four-person flatwater kayak race over 500 metres.
The tall blond will team up with Hannah Davis and Lyndsie Forgarty, both surf lifesavers in their own parts of Australia, with former Briton Rachel L o vell completing the quad.
That three quarters of the team got into sprint paddling from surf lifesaving is no great surprise.
“Nearly all of Australia’s great kayaking champions and nearly all the medallists at the Olympic games have come out of surf lifesaving beginnings,” according to Clint Robinson, a gold medallist in kayaking at the 1992 Barcelona games.
Brigden-Jones competes for Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches, one of Australia’s oldest surf clubs whose establishment dates back to the start of the twentieth century.
Her surf lifesaving started at the age of six when she joined Nippers, a youth programme designed to practice surf swimming and ocean-safety skills.
Every summer Sunday, thousands of kids take over Australia’s most popular beaches for a morning of friendly surf lifesaving competition.
“I wanted to be with my friends and have fun outdoors,” she recalls.
She took a break after a couple of years, only to rejoin at 19 to add surfski paddling to her flatwater kayaking activity.
“It helps you balancing your life and how to fit everything and stick to training.”
Braving the surf taught her how to appreciate and respect the elements.
“It’s part of the Australian culture. That’s why you can’t find many countries doing what we do,” she said.
But surf lifesaving is not just about fun and just last year volunteers drawn from the more than 150,000 members of clubs were involved in 12,000 rescues.
Bridgen-Jones, nicknamed Goanna, is no token member of the club and has been involved in at least two rescues where lives were saved.
Nor is she alone in taking the honour of the Manly club to compete at the Olympics, with Murray Stewart having made the men’s team and Naomi Flood competing in the women’s K-2 500.
“Through lifesaving competitions, you can see their determination and focus and once you put your mind into, it comes out,” said Mel Pelly, a 34-year old Manly Surf Club member.
Brigden-Jones has already shown great determination to battle back from a shoulder injury she sustained in 2010 when she was ranked world number two as a solo kayak paddler.
She managed to clinch the third spot in a two-seat kayak at the world championships in Hungary shortly after her return after 10 months on the sideline and just this month won top honours in a similar race at a world cup event in Moscow.
Reuters video: Brigden-Jones paddles from Manly surf to L ondon waters
link.reuters.com/kej98s (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)