January 17, 2010

AUSTRALIA: World's oldest lifesaver just loves to volunteer

. BRISBANE, Queensland / The Courier-Mail / Queensland / January 17, 2010 By Alex Murdoch AT THE ripe old age of 94, "world's oldest lifesaver" is a tag Russell Barden wears with pride. He's earned it. With little more than a handful of years separating the Maroochydore man from his centennial, this grandfather of the sport has spent 30 years pounding the beach. What makes Mr Barden's story even more unusual is that his passion did not strike until later in life – after he retired from a fulfilling career as a machine moulder with the NSW railways at the age of 62 and followed his daughter to Queensland. The loveable larrikin learned to swim in waterholes around NSW before spending his youth as a jackeroo – a far cry from the Sunshine Coast's sandy beaches. "I joined the army for a while (the light horse) but they kicked me out because they wanted me doing the job I was already doing," Mr Barden said. He was 23 years old, the year was 1939, World War II was brewing and farming was a protected occupation. So how did this boy from the bush become a guardian of the surf? Maroochydore club records suggest Mr Barden was 66 when he earned his bronze medallion but he believes he was probably closer to 63. "I went to the Maroochydore beach every day for a swim and got talking with the lifesavers – fellows named Stuey Friend and Ken Newing – and they said 'why don't you go for your bronze?'," he said. "I thought to myself I've got nothing to do, I'll give it a go." A quick trip to the clubhouse and Mr Barden was booked in, with just one question requiring clarification: "I'm not too old, am I?" "You're never too old," was the firm reply. Six weeks of training and Mr Barden was lined up against contenders less than a third his age. "I beat two 18 year olds in the surf-belt swim," Mr Barden said with pride. He went on to rescue a 13-year-old girl on his first patrol – a feat he wryly admits he never had to repeat. As for the business of saving lives, Mr Barden reckons he already had a big head start. "I had three St John Ambulance first aid certificates and their silver medallion before I even came up here," he said. "I'm a life member of the (NSW) railways' first aid squad and I could swim and run in those days." Mr Barden went on to add an advanced resuscitation certificate, first aid certificate, radio operator's certificate, inflatable rescue boat driver's certificate, instructor's certificate and radio instructor's certificate to his portfolio. "Then two years ago I went and got my senior first aid certificate – just for a bit of fun," he said. And if that was not already enough, Mr Barden also has been awarded an International Year of the Volunteer certificate, a frontline leadership award and an annual local hero award, all for his services to surf lifesaving. FOR THE LOVE: Lifesaver Russell Barden, 94, with nippers Matthew Palmer, 10, Dylan Borthwick, 9, Adam Palmer, 8, and Jackson Woollett, 10. Megan Slade. Despite retiring from patrol duties in the early '80s, no job has been too great or small for Mr Barden. For two years he was radio officer, before putting his hand up for patrol gear steward – a position he still holds. It was also Mr Barden who recruited a few mates to kick-start the Maroochydore SLSC's first radio crew – to save patrolling lifesavers from running communications between the beach and the radio tower. It is still in operation today. But Mr Barden admits that it was his constant involvement in training and encouraging nippers that earned him the nickname "the father". "I used to swim with them around the buoys and taught them first aid," he said. Mr Barden formed a particularly strong bond with Olympic kayak gold medallist Clint Robinson. "He's our trainer at our club now," he said. "I went to his wedding." Mr Barden's contributions were again acknowledged when he was made a life member of the Maroochydore SLSC in 2003. While the nonagenarian admitted he had slowed a little – he now gets up at 5.30am instead of 5am – he said he still visits the club every day. "I go there to check the gear, and I go for a feed three days a week and to meet up with the blokes," Mr Barden said. "One of the chaps does all my shopping for me – that's pretty good friendship – and others pop in to see how I'm sparking." And from time to time Mr Barden still gets trotted out to have an inspirational chat with the youngsters. So what is it that keeps him coming back for more? "It's the friendship of all the people and doing voluntary work," he said. "Old people need exercise. You'll die just sitting there watching the box." [rc] © 2010 Queensland Newspapers.