Sid Salek performed his first water rescue at just 12 years old. More than 50 years later, he officially became a lifeguard.
“I was swimming in the Wellington harbour when one of my mates got into trouble – his arms were flapping about and he was gasping for air. I swam over to help but he jumped on top of me in panic. Luckily, I knew to put my knee into his stomach and press my hand against his chin to push him off, but I accidently let him go in the process, and down he went! I dived down after him, grabbed him by the hair and yanked him up, then dragged him back to shore
“IT WAS JUST A CASE OF RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME, REALLY,”
Sid says casually, as he leans back in his recliner chair in the living room of his Waitui Grove home. Accolades are scattered about the house. But his framed ‘Certificate of Merit’ from the Royal Life Saving Society isn’t among them – that now has pride of place at the Omanu Surf Club, having been presented to Sid in 1946.
FAST FORWARD TO AGE 65: SID BECAME THE OLDEST PERSON IN THE HISTORY OF WELLINGTON’S LYALL BAY SURF CLUB TO QUALIFY AS A LIFEGUARD.
Today, the 87-year-old Mount Maunganui local has smashed over 60 Masters Games and world records, survived crash-landing a glider in the middle of The Mount football field, competes in yearly half-ironman competitions, and holds the record for the most swims around the Mount (29, to be precise). You’ll also see him patrolling Omanu Beach, walkie-talkie in hand. With all the sun on his skin, he keeps his skin supple with a hipster fave.
“I only use coconut oil on my skin,” the former optometrist says. Youth pours out of Sid from every angle, so he must be doing something right. Perhaps the shot of liqueur he has every morning ‘to help stop the shakes’ plays a part in keeping his mind and body sharp, or maybe it’s his quirky midnight snack routine?
Before Sid moved to The Mount in 1992, he was one of the first lifeguards in the lower North Island to use an IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat), and was Lyall Bay’s one-stop-shop – from search and rescue to fixing motors. Sadly, his skills and years of experience can be overshadowed by the stigma of being a senior citizen.
“I’VE BEEN IN A SITUATION WHERE I WASN’T ALLOWED TO BE WITHIN SIX FEET OF AN IRB, LET ALONE DRIVE ONE.
That’s why I love Omanu Surf Club. The first time I wandered down there, I chatted to a bloke you’d think was my own son – he was so friendly, so interested. So I signed up on the spot.
“YOUNGER GENERATIONS DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN OLDIE.
After I’ve done a sea-swim, people come rushing to take me by the arm, but I don’t need that. I know I only need to mutter half a word, and people will come to my assistance. But I never have to worry about that while I’m patrolling at Omanu. I’m involved, I’m contributing, and the respect just falls off the kids.”
SID’S FACE LIGHTS UP WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT HIS OMANU ‘FAMILY’.
When I ask about his patrol schedule, he points to the kitchen calendar with PATROL splashed about the pages, in between his various other commitments. He may be pushing 90, but Sid is a social butterfly, and there’s nothing he loves more than chucking on his lifeguard uniform and taking his 1969 Lambretta scooter down to the surf club, ready to get to work.
“THESE DAYS I CALL MYSELF THE MASCOT. I’M NOT IN THE WATER SO MUCH.
I’m there for support. I’m very fussy though – I can’t believe how people can be so clumsy when tying the flags on! Once they’ve been tied, I always go and re-tie them. The kids laugh; they’re used to me nagging them.”
DURING PATROL, SID DOES A 450M SWIM BEFORE CLOCKING OFF
Something he can’t wait to get back into. An ankle injury has prevented him from being in the water since July, and when it comes to feet, Sid’s are as colourful as his personality. His left foot is permanently swollen from years stuffed in ski boots (he skied for over 60 years and only recently gave it up), and his right ankle is bandaged from an injury in Samoa. It’s not slowing him down, though.
“I’M HANGING OUT TO GET INTO THE SEASON.
Before Samoa, I was swimming 2 km non-stop, three times per week, and hopefully I’ll be back to my normal training routine before Christmas,” he says. Does it surprise you to hear Sid’s also hell-bent on breaking his own Round-the-Mount swim record as soon as possible? Didn’t think so.
MIND OVER MATTER
Sid sees life divided into ‘head stuff’ and ‘physical stuff’.
“IT’S THE HEAD STUFF THAT’S MOST IMPORTANT. FOR SOME PEOPLE, YOU COULD AMPUTATE THEIR LEG AND THEY WOULD STILL COMPLAIN OF SORE TOES.
If the brain is powerful enough to give you sore toes from a leg that isn’t there, imagine the potential of positive thinking? If you want to do something, just bloody do it.
“I TRY TO BELIEVE IN MYSELF. I LIVE HAPPILY ON MY OWN, I TAKE MY BLOOD PRESSURE DAILY, AND I’M VERY FUSSY ABOUT MY DIET.
I have a banana in the morning before training and I’m a keen follower of the low carb, high fat and protein diet, because I love to guts up on cheese! I also monitor my heart and stroke rate every time I swim, so I can tell whether I’m getting fitter.”
CONSIDERING HIS LIFESTYLE AND TRAINING REGIME, IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE SID IS NOT AN ATHLETE A THIRD OF HIS AGE.
You’d also be forgiven for thinking his pantry belonged to a millennial hipster – chia seeds, LSA, stevia, Pic’s peanut butter, coconut oil, and plant protein adorn the shelves, and his fridge is full of vegetables, home-made yoghurt, coconut milk and fruit (including egg trays lined with kiwifruit for his midnight antics).
AFTER CLAIMING THE WAY TO THE TOP IS SIMPLY OUTLIVING YOUR COMPETITORS, IT’S CLEAR SID DOESN’T TAKE LIFE TOO SERIOUSLY. (THIS IS THE SAME GUY WHO NAMED HIS HALF-IRONMAN TEAM ‘THE OLD FARTS’.)
His unwavering positivity reminds me of a line from a famous poem by George Oppen about the process of growing old: ‘what a strange thing to happen to a little boy’.
SID DEFIES ALL CONVENTIONAL CONCEPTIONS OF AGE, BUT HE STILL LIKES TO KEEP PEOPLE GUESSING.
“You want to know why I shave my head?” he laughs. “So no one can tell how old I am!”
Stay active with Sid this summer:
15 Surf Rd, Mount Maunganui.