When John Bryant opened the letter from Surf Life Saving New Zealand recently, his first thought was “what have I done now?”
The Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service coach suspected he’d spoken his mind once too often and fallen foul of officialdom, allowing his undiluted passion for the surf lifesaving movement to get the better of him.
The passion part was right but the falling foul bit couldn’t have been further from the truth. Instead, the letter explained, 50-year-old Bryant – known far and wide by his nickname “Spindles” – was about to receive one of the youngest life memberships ever awarded by the national organisation.
“I was quite shocked and I certainly didn’t expect it – I thought I was too young to be getting a life membership,” Bryant, who is currently with the Mount team at the Rescue 2014 world championships in France, told Dscribe Media. “I am completely humbled too. I’ve never spent enough time in one place to get a life membership at a club but this is a huge honour and I’ve got so many good friends and good memories in this movement.”
Bryant is a former New Zealand coach, having spent 13 years with the St Clair club in Dunedin, 13 years with Christchurch club South Brighton and the last 12 years running the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service sports programme.
He’s won the Alan Gardner Trophy – awarded to the top club at surf lifesaving’s national championships – a staggering eight times in the past 14 years and took New Zealand to second in the world during his six-year national coaching reign.
He’s coached triathlon star Andrea Hewitt, Olympic champion kayaker Lisa Carrington and a handful of world champions, like sprinters Chelsea Maples and Holly Moczydlowski. A rough count of national titles by athletes he’s coached runs close to 500.
Just as importantly, he’s also racked up 37 consecutive years as a patrolling lifeguard, attending hundreds of rescues and being first on the scene at incidents while his squads were out training.
Not surprisingly, he’s a fierce advocate of the benefits of surf spots, having seen first-hand the impact they can make on keeping beaches safe for the public.
“I didn’t really see the value of the surf sports side of things for lifeguarding until I moved up here to the Mount and realised a fitter, faster lifeguard saves lives. Without that surf sports side of things, people would die left, right and centre.”
Bryant wandered down to the St Clair club when he was 13, following a group of mates who were keen surfers. Something clicked with the surf lifesaving movement, however, and he soon progressed into board and ski paddling, canoes and IRB racing.
Off the beach, he also represented Otago in basketball and played national league volleyball.
To keep himself fit, he trained under swimming super-coach Duncan Laing for five years in Dunedin, before moving to South Brighton and coming under the influence of another former national coach, Geoff Barry.
He started dabbling in coaching at St Clair but really moved into the role in Christchurch, eventually coaching the Canterbury under-19 and open surf league teams.
“I took Geoff Barry’s planning, (former New Zealand ironman champion) Lars Humer’s ability to get the best out of the athlete and Duncan’s programming – that’s formed the basis of my coaching philosophy.”
Through it all, he’s been ably supported by wife Rachael Leckie.
“I’ve got the best supporter in the world, in Rachael. She allows me to do something I really enjoy doing. It must be hard for her at times because I spend a lot of time at the beach, a lot of time on my phone and a lot of time on my laptop at night. But she never ever complains and I couldn’t do this sport without her.”
Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service chairman Paul Treanor credits Bryant with having a huge impact in the resurgence of the club.
“As soon as he arrived here, Spindles set about instilling core values in his athletes – like respect, hard work and discipline,” Treanor explained. “Over time, these values have permeated through the rest of the club and into all areas of lifeguarding, sports and our culture. We’ve had incredible success with our athletes in recent years but just as importantly, they’ve had fun doing it and have given back so much to the movement. That’s the legacy Spindles has helped create and I can’t think of a more worthy recipient for life membership of our national body.”
That’s not a call for Bryant to sit back and relax, however.
“Nothing changes with this – I’ll just continue to do my job. I’d love to see some more of these young kids coming through and representing New Zealand. If I can manage to keep my body together until the age of 60, that will be my swansong. Then I’ll drop out and go and coach 5 and 6-year-olds – that way I’ll be able to stand in the water and have them run around me rather than having to go out paddling with them! I’m a big believer in completing the circle and finishing up where I started, so that would be a good way of doing that.”
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