Albatross Nippers: Ocean swimming for every body

Gold Coast-based Nick Marshall, is a man of many talents; physiotherapist, Assistant Professor, NRL referee waterboy, former ironman and open water swimmer, to name a few.

However, it is his most recent creation, Albatross Nippers, that he believes is his finest.

In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Marshall about the inclusive nipper program and the impact it has had on an astonishing amount of families. Marshall also shares his thoughts on how nippers is helping to shape some of Australia’s best elite athletes, his reflections as an open water swimmer and his best advice as a physio for ocean swimmers.

What is Albatross Nippers?

Albatross Nippers is a Gold Coast-based nipper program for children with special needs created by Nick Marshall.

This program, much like the Same Wave and Starfish Nippers programs, and other similar programs around the country, aims to promote beach awareness, community spirit and fun for children with special needs, all within an inclusive surf lifesaving environment.

Albatross Nippers heading down to the beach for a morning full of nippers fun.

The unlikely start of Albatross Nippers

Mr Marshall has coached at a number of different surf lifesaving clubs over the years, and it was during this time that he encountered families with special needs children.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that one family at Nobby’s Beach Surf Lifesaving Club got Marshall’s brain ticking about creating an inclusive nipper program.

“I had come across a number of families at surf clubs where one child had special needs and the other was in my surf squad,” said Marshall.

“But I had this one particular family at Nobby’s where one child was a superstar and the other had down syndrome and couldn’t join in. So I kind of took them under my wing and they became my surrogate assistant coach. I actually used to whisper things in one sibling’s ear to yell at their brother as they ran past.

“But at the end of that season, the family spoke to me and said ‘we love surf but we’re not going to stay because on nipper days we have mum and one child at one end of the beach and dad with the good competitor at the other end doing nippers.

“It was at this point that my eyes were sort of opened because I had never realised how socially isolating it can be for a family with a child with special needs.”

From here, Marshall started thinking about what he could create to include everyone in the much loved Australian sport of surf lifesaving and nippers.

“It probably took me two years to work out how we could do something with everyone involved,” said Mr Marshall.

“But, I got there and in 2015 we launched Albatross Nippers and it has kind of just grown and blown up since we started.

“It really is crazy how it has blown up because I legitimately thought it would be just four or five families coming along with one child in U11 or U12 and one in our inclusive Albatross nippers.

“But fast forward six years and we have seventy-five Albatross kids, which is just amazing.”

Stories from the Beach

Over the years Marshall has collected a number of stories from the Albatross Nippers program.

Some happy, and some sad, but all make him realise that what he is doing with Albatross Nippers is pretty special and making a huge impact on the community.

One of Mr Marshall’s favourite moments from the beach happened recently.

For a bit of context, the All Saints Rugby Club currently help out the Albatross Nippers. Mr Marshall and the Albatross Nippers have also welcomed a new family and their daughter Poppy, who has Cerebral Palsy, to the Albatross crew from Cairns. Poppy’s family decided to move down to the Gold Coast from Cairns because Poppy’s older sister plays for the Gold Coast Suns Women’s Team.

“Early on after Poppy had joined the Albatross Nippers, Poppy’s mum came to me and was nearly in tears,” said Marshall.

“She said ‘we have never done anything like this before Nick,’ and I said oh that is strange because Cairns has matting and wheelchairs at their beaches so, you could have gone to the beach.

“Now I tell you her response broke my heart a little, she said, ‘We actually never went to the beach back in Cairns because my youngest son always said we’re the weird family with the wheelchair, so it’s too embarrassing to go to the beach.

“Now you can see how that would break my heart a little, but she proceeded to tell me that when they come to Nobby’s and Albatross Nippers, they feel included and no one looks at them differently.

“The All Saints boys have also done a great job of making Poppy’s younger brother feel a part of the group and made him feel that it is cool to be at the beach with the Albatross Nippers.”

Marshall said it’s stories like this one about how isolating it can be for families with a special needs child, preventing them from participating in much loved Aussie sports such as surf lifesaving and open water swimming, that continue to shock him.

“At the time when I heard this, I didn’t realise how much of an impact it has on the siblings of these families and that they can’t go to the beach either,” said Marshall.

“I realised that we are much more than a nipper program because we make such a big impact on the community and bring awareness of those families who have children with special needs.”

A couple of the All Saints Rugby Club boys helping out at Albatross Nippers

‘Included’ the Book

It is these moments on the beach and in the community that prompted Mr Marshall to step outside his comfort zone of physiotherapy and surf coaching to write the book ‘Included’.

“I probably wouldn’t have written the book if it wasn’t for Covid and having some downtime at work for about a year, and the encouragement of my fellow nominees in the Australian of the Year,” said Marshall.

“They said it would be really interesting to know what went into creating the program and the impact it has had on the families and community.

“I hope that the book continues to create more community awareness of kids living with special needs and them being able to do everything we do, with just a bit of extra help.

“I think that everyone panics and thinks they couldn’t do a program like Albatross Nippers because it’s too hard, but they can, cause it’s really not that hard and it does make a big impact on the kids and the local area.”

Is the evolution of nippers creating great ocean swimmers?

After chatting with Mr Marshall about Albatross Nippers we wanted to pick his brain about ocean swimming, surf lifesaving and nippers and how it has evolved over the years.

“I definitely think general nipper programs have changed over the years,” said Marshall.

“They are far more structured now, which has a lot of positives, but they still teach the kids awareness of the ocean and safety.

“Maybe we don’t teach them to the degree that I was taught and you would have been taught, but that is because we do have to be more careful about safety nowadays.

“The nippers probably don’t get into the adventures that you and I would have gotten into on the beach as a kid, but thank God they don’t because we could have issues there.”

Ocean swimming is a way of life in Australia and that is being taught from the grassroots of nippers for those growing up along the coastline.

“I definitely think the new structure continues to teach kids ocean swimming skills, but it really is location dependent,” said Marshall.

“Because here on the Gold Coast it is tough if you are an eight-year-old diving under three or four-foot waves, with water rushing everywhere, and them popping up and there is another set heading for you, that can be unpleasant for them.

“There are places like Rainbow Bay, Coolangatta, Currumbin and Tallebudgera where you can learn ocean swimming skills really early on cause it’s nice, calm and flat there.

“But I do think that kids that come through the system on the Gold Coast are good ocean swimmers and are a bit tougher because they have been bought up with the waves coming at them from all directions and pummeling them.”

Mr Marshall’s new book ‘Included’

Purchase Mr Marshall’s new book Included here

Nippers: a stepping stone for elite athletes

Growing up, nippers was a way of life for not only me but many other Aussie kids around the country. But did you know nippers is a great stepping stone in creating well-rounded athletes and one of Mr Marshall’s favourite topics?

“I love talking about this, I could honestly talk about it for hours and hours because I find it absolutely fascinating how many kids have gone through nippers and gone on to be amazing sports stars,” said Marshall.

“Nippers is a basic sport but it teaches kids the fundamentals of movement and it teaches them to be competitive but to also get real enjoyment out of competing not just for the medals but to also have fun with your friends.

“Obviously, everyone wants their kids to be safe in the ocean, learn a bit of respect and about giving back and that is what nippers does.

“But, it also teaches them to run, swim and jump.”

“I find it fascinating that there are so many avenues of sport that come from nippers and surf lifesaving. You can do boat rowing, ski paddling, board paddling, swimming and running but these aspects of surf then translate to sports like rowing, kayaking, open water swimming, and track and field, which gives kids great options of sports to pursue as they get older.”

Reflections from an open water career

Before Mr Marshall became a physio, he was a state and Australian representative in open water swimming.

I asked him to reflect on how open water swimming is evolving.

“Call me crazy but I absolutely loved doing open water swimming, I honestly don’t think you realise how crazy swimming 25 kilometres is until you stop doing it and you look back and question how you did it,” said Marshall.

“I mean I have some really good memories from open water swimming, I did 25 kilometres in Perth one time out of Hillarys Boat Harbour, and back then, people thought we were crazy swimming that distance but that is normal these days.

“That swim was a tough one. We were punching into a terrible wind and the swell was just throwing people everywhere, you really just tried to stay close to the boat and wash ride for as long as you could.”

Funny enough Mr Marshall’s favourite swim over his open water career wasn’t a ten or 25 kilometres swim, but a two-kilometre ocean swim at Byron Bay.

“I would have to say the Bryon Bay winter whales ocean swim one year was my favourite open water swims,” said Marshall.

“The swell was up so I really had to navigate out through the break, then I just keep swimming with the water bobbing us along, and then coming back in I was lucky to crack a wave all the way to shore from out the back.

“I think I body surfed over like ten people, which was fun, to use my surf skills. I actually came second in that swim to (legendary surf Ironman) Zane Holmes, so that was epic.”

Nick’s best physio advice for open water swimmers

Over the years as an athlete and a physio, Marshall has learnt many things about athletes and injuries and his biggest advice is: ‘listen to your body and act on pain straight away.’

“I think too many people don’t listen to their bodies early enough when they have pain or soreness in an area,” said Marshall.

“It is much easier to act on things straight away, rather than coming and seeing me in a month because that is never going to be a good result.

“Another lesson I have for open water swimmers is that doing kilometres on kilometres on kilometres isn’t always the best.

“A lot of swimmers think that getting the kilometres in will make them a better swimmer but it often just leads to injury and time out of the water.

“So I would say, do the kilometres but also take the time to work on your technique and become a more efficient swimmer because that will not only allow you to swim longer and faster, but it will also reduce the risk of you getting injured.”

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