• Editorial

Vale, Neil Rogers

Paul Ellercamp pays tribute to Neil Rogers; the big, loud, brash, charming, generous risk-taker who was loved by all.

By Paul Ellercamp
Founder, oceanswims.com and co-proprietor, oceanswimsafaris.com

Neil Rogers was the archetypical Eastern Suburbs character – a big, loud, brash, charming, generous risk-taker; he filled a space; he was larger than life; he lived on his wits; a man of many ups and downs. And of many achievements. People knew he was around.

He was ‘a colourful Eastern Suburbs identity’, without the sinister underworld undertones usually attached to that stereotype.

As the concept of the degrees of separation goes, our lives and Neil Rogers’s life ran courses mostly a couple of degrees separated, but they came together over the last quarter century through oceanswims.com. Neil was a great supporter of our website, always boosting us over the PA while calling swim events on the beach. I like to think we became good friends over time. On occasion, when we needed to know something, we would go to Neil, and even if he didn’t know it, he’d tell us so, or he made you feel as if he did, or he told us where to find out. He was always happy to share his knowledge and his experience. That was part of Neil’s charm.

Early in life, Neil was one of the glamour boys of Australian sport, a good-looking kid, part of a trio of attractive, high-achieving brothers, Greg, Ron, and Neil. He was the Rogers brother who was ‘always a gentleman, always polite, always happy,’ says his friend, Steve Delorenzo.

The youngest of the three, Neil swam at two Olympic Games and two Commonwealth Games, held many titles in surf swimming, both surf races and the belt; he represented Australia against South Africa in a surf lifesaving test series in 1971. He was a fixture on the beach for years. Kids grew up wanting to be like him.

Our first closer brush with Neil – still a degree separated – was at the NSW State Surf Championships at South Curl Curl in 1972. We covered the event for The Sydney Morning Herald. There was a heavy sea running, on a beach that reacts angrily to a heavy sea; the skies were brooding; it was dark; the wind howled; the rain pelted; the beach was miserable. Neil was in the Junior Belt final, the favourite to win it.

And most probably would have won had the line he was towing via the belt had not become tangled in his linesman’s long hair. The linesman was Geoff James, a fellow junior at Clovelly surf club. We figured the incident was of interest and we reported this in our story but, to us, other event results ‘merited’ greater attention.

The next day, the Sydney Sun newspaper filled its entire front page with a photo of Geoff James (Jr), taken from behind with a graphic view of Geoff’s very long hair. It was likely that, had the hair tangle happened to anyone other than a Rogers, the Sun wouldn’t have cared less.

The three Rogers lads learnt to swim in Clovelly bay with Tom Caddy, who taught a generation of people to swim, many of them also legends. The Rogers brothers switched coaches to Don Talbot, who turned Neil, initially a backstroker, into a butterflyer. Neil resented this, friends say, but Talbot must have known something: Neil’s international gold was in the 100m butterfly at the Commonwealth Games in 1974.

John Koorey, a legend himself of some of the greatest ocean challenges and who trained with Caddy at the same time, said he was ‘bitter when they switched coaches’, feeling it was disloyal, but, Koorey said, ‘they got to the Olympics; I didn’t’.

Talbot didn’t like his swimmers mixing the pool with the surf, journalist Ian Hanson wrote in 2020.

Neil, poolside at Bondi Icebergs

“But I tell you what, it did do,’ Rogers told Hanson.  ‘It got us fit… You try going in four or five surf races on a Saturday and a Sunday, and all of a sudden, for someone (like me) not known for his fitness… you get fit awful quick and you were jumping through hoops… doing all those ins and outs.’

Along with their dad, Norm – from whom Neil inherited his booming voice and room-filling presence – the boys were legends around Clovelly for their swimming and surfing and for their prominence in handball. Friends say they played handball during the week with locals such as Perce Galea, who owned racehorses and ran one of Sydney’s best-known illegal casinos. Galea and co. would attend Clovelly on Mondays after first attending Tatts in the city for settlement of the prior weekend’s betting.

‘Perce would put on a seafood spread every Monday,’ Koorey said. ‘All sorts of people would turn up,’ he said, rattling off names that would raise eyebrows.

The Rogers boys picked up the betting bug. The eldest brother, Greg, secured a bookmaker’s licence, and the three boys fielded at the dogs and the trots around NSW. Neil worked for them on the stand.

The age-based pecking order had another fall-out: in August 1974, Greg and Ron appeared in a nude spread in Playgirl magazine. Neil was annoyed, friends say, because he was considered too young to take part.

After he returned from college in the US, Neil took charge of a bunch of younger Cloey swimmers. ‘He was doing ocean swimming before it was thought of as a sport,’ says Steve Delorenzo, one of those younger Caddy swimmers. ‘He was always dreaming up new swim courses… Cloey to Coogee, Cloey to Bronte… And he’d say, “Let’s do it harder; let’s swim in Dunlop Volleys, and your dad’s old shirt”.’

Neil liked a good time. One friend said he was known as ‘the swimming beer can’. Later in life, a hedonistic streak would have served him well as Neil worked flogging wine over the phone for Cellarmasters.

Betting never left him, and some would regard it as his curse. Few habitual punters come out on top. Neil was lucky he had sharp wits to help him get by.

Neil also had a brief career as a swim organiser, when in 2017, he revived the Coogee-Bondi swim as the 5 Beaches Swim. We questioned Neil’s call when he moved the swim to early December from its original date in April. In December, conditions weren’t right for a south-north swim over that distance. Eventually, Neil moved it back again. But he had bad luck with it: the weather wasn’t kind, even given the later timing, and he always had difficulty securing approvals from authorities and support with water safety staff.

He will be remembered for his positive role in ocean swimming. He was very much part of the colour of our caper through his role at events, where he seemed to know everyone, or of them and when technology allowed it, he welcomed everyone across the line while calling their names and times over the PA.

He will also be known for his squad at the ‘bergs, a highly successful squad, preparing many swimmers themselves for great achievement. Squad members tell us it was not uncommon in summer to have 15 swimmers in each of two lanes at the ‘bergs pool early morn. Even in winter, there could be 10 per lane.

Neil never saw himself as a pool coach, and he didn’t focus on improving swimmers’ times. ‘I’m not a pool coach,’ he would say, ‘I’m a surf and an ocean coach.’ And, ’Don’t look at the clock. You’re not going to the Olympics. Just swim fast…’ And ‘Better going in (to a race) over-rested than over-done’.

Neil on deck coaching at Bondi Icebergs

As a coach, he would always turn up. He treasured the iconic sunrises over the ‘bergs. He had his favourite sets – which could become predictable. But it was the spirit of the squad that fired up his followers, and that came from the coach. If the surf was washing through the pool (as on a sea and at high tide), making the pool unusable, he would get the squad out into the ocean, say, for something different.

Such was the loyalty and – as another squad member, Cristina Lawrence, puts it – ‘the love’ the squad had for Neil that it facilitated great friendships among squad members.

 ‘Neil’s legacy is that he left behind so many enduring friendships amongst people whom he brought together’, said Garry Luscombe, another squad member.

He also had a sentimental side. Neil had known Mrs Sparkle’s mum, Evelyn, when she managed Australian Swimming travelling teams. When Evelyn died during covid, aged 94, Neil sent an email which concluded: ‘I only have the very fondest memories of your Mum, so gentle and caring. She was ‘our’ Mum as well for the three months of training camp. Thank you for sharing her with us’.

No one is beige. Neil was many-coloured. Vale, Neil Rogers.

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 23 April 2024
  • (Updated on 23 April 2024)

The guardian of open water swimming: Passionately supporting the swimming community since 1999

Copyright © 1999-2024 oceanswims.com. All rights reserved.
‘OCEANFIT is a registered trademark of OceanFit Pty Ltd.