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A tradition waiting to happen: 21 years of Bondi to Bronte

This year marks 21 years since the first Bondi to Bronte ocean swim was held between the two oldest surf lifesaving clubs in Australia.

Since that first event on Sunday, 2nd of December 2001, the event has captured the imagination of the ocean swimming community and grown from humble beginnings to become one of the largest ocean swims in Australia.

The driving force behind the event getting off the ground back at the start of the millennium was Graham Ford AM, who was, at the time, president of Bronte SLSC.

A tall ship sits off Bronte during the 2010 event

“In 2001 I was president of the club and we were trying to raise money for two reasons; one being for lifesaving equipment for the club, and the second was to send a group of young Bronte surf club competitors to the World Life Saving Championships in Daytona, Florida, USA in 2022,” said Mr Ford.

“I had been talking to some of the older members of the club as we used to run the Bronte Duathlon, where participants would swim to McKenzies Bay and back before running to Bondi Beach and back to Bronte.

“We knew this wouldn’t work because of issues with people on the popular Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk, so we started thinking of another way. I thought of going from Bronte to Bondi until I spoke to Paul Ellercamp, the former owner of oceanswims.com and secretary of Bronte surf club at the time.

“He suggested we switch it and start at Bondi Beach and swim to Bronte, and do it as a journey swim and so that is what we did.”

The Bondi to Bronte is a tradition waiting to happen.

Paul Ellercamp

Mr Ford had great hope that the first event would be a success, however, the outcome far exceeded even his wildest expectations.

“I was hoping to get 300 swimmers the first year and we were catering for 500 in case we got more, but as it turns out we got 700 swimmers,” recalls Mr Ford.

“Which was incredible, it meant the day was chaotic but it turned out a success.

“Back then we didn’t have electronic timing, it was all manual, so it was quite the job and we had a fair bit of pressure on us.

“It’s funny looking back because Paul Ellercamp said that first year, that the Bondi to Bronte was a tradition waiting to happen and it sure has turned out to be just that.”

Graham Ford with a Bondi to Bronte event coordinator, Kimberley Johns.

Chatting with Graham, it is evident how in tune with the event he still is, even rattling off times and place-getters from over the years, including from the first event 21 years ago.

“The first year was won by Quinn Daragh, who was a Waverly lifeguard, in 23 minutes 54 seconds and the first female was Shannon Habler, in 27 minutes 26 seconds, who was the sister of Olympic swimmer Leigh Habler,” said Mr Ford.

“Over the years we have had a number of Olympians win the event including; Mal Allen (1996 Olympian) winning in 2006, Jarrod Poort (2012 & 2016 Olympian) in 2012 and 2015, and Melissa Gorman (2008 & 2012 Olympian) was the first female in 2011.

“We have also had a handful of swimmers win the event multiple times, including; Shelley Clark, Eliza Smith, Luane Rowe, Jarrod Port, Josh Santacatronia, Wally Eggleton and Ollie Signorini.

“Currently, Josh Santacatorina and Jarrod Killey have the fastest male time of 22 minutes 29 seconds and Tayla Martin has the fastest female time of 23 minutes 30 seconds.”

Over the years the event has evolved with the biggest evolution of the event being the introduction of additional distances and a priority on risk management.

“In 2009, we introduced the Junior Ocean Swim to get the kids involved and it really is great watching the younger age groups getting out there and having fun, that would have to be my favourite part of the event now,” said Mr Ford.

“Then in 2013, the Bondi Bay Swim was started as an introduction ocean swim for people, because we did have a lot of the backpacker community in Bondi come down and try to do the Bondi to Bronte but they would get in the waves and panic so that is one of the reasons why we came up with a smaller swim for people to enjoy.”

The event is in the Ford blood, with Graham’s son, Stephen Ford, having been the race director since 2005.

Stephen Ford – Race Director (2005-current)

“I would say that we were probably the leaders in risk management from the beginning,” said the younger of the Ford’s.

“Historically ocean swim events were run very well by surf clubs but there wasn’t a real risk management approach in how to ensure the safety of both the swimmers and volunteers at the event.

“Our biggest evolution is looking at the ratio of swimmers in the water to the ratio of our water safety and currently we aim to have one water safety in the water every 50 metres for the 2.4-kilometre stretch.

“And one of the best pieces of feedback we receive each year is how the number of water safety in the water – on boards, boats and jet skis – is phenomenal and makes participants feel safe and comfortable in the water.

“We also pride ourselves on having a lot of swim cans in the water and is properly on the overkill side but we want swimmers to have a clear line of sight to all the water along the coast and it makes that swimmer’s experience just that bit more enjoyable.”

Learn more and enter the Macquarie Bondi to Bronte ocean swim on Sunday, 4 December 2022. Entries close at 5 pm, Friday 2 December.

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