The great American athlete John Carlos once described “those people of grace who raise sport to something more than a game”. Carlos and Tommie Smith had stood with their black-gloved fists held high on the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, damning racism and poverty. They were men of grace. Sep was very different, but he had the grace.
Sep died the other day. He was 88, but I imagine him only as a dashing figure. Tall and languid, with a laconic half-smile like Errol Flynn’s, he would appear on Bondi Beach dressed in fashionable white bathing trunks and navigator sunglasses and surrounded by bikini-clad beauties, one of whom (usually Lexie) would apply his favourite coconut oil. And when the moment was right, he would dive from the perilous bogie hole into the fist of a wave as it raced towards the cliffs, then crest it before it struck the rocks. An accredited legend of North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, he was one of the greatest surf swimmers and swimming coaches Australia has produced. As someone wrote, he was “Don Bradman’s equivalent in the water”.
I knew about Sep from a very early age because we had both attended Wellington Street School. He and other Bondi lifesavers had taken part in a courageous mass rescue of a kind that happened when the first non-swimming immigrants arrived in Australia and embraced the surf and its dangers. My headmaster had pinned up newspaper pictures in which Sep wore his signature shades. He looked good.
To appreciate Sep, you need to glimpse Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. Apart from enclaves of old money, Sydney was a poor city and Bondi, where I grew up, had faithful copies of the back-to-back houses of northern England which ensured that the diamond light of the great south land seldom intruded. In the long, hot, humid summers men wore serge suits, and an evangelical primness was upheld. But the beach was different. An English visitor, one Egbert T Russell, noted in 1910 that “one of the strangest features of Sydney surf bathing to the stranger is the casualness of the sexes on the beaches. They are partially naked, but not so unashamed as to notice the fact.” Swimming up and down the green pyramids of the South Pacific, eyes half closed from the salt spray, was the greatest fun of all.
On Saturday mornings, Sep would sit on his coach’s throne on whitewashed rocks overlooking Bondi’s ocean baths. His female entourage would strap kerosene cans to the backs of the youngest kids – water wings had yet to be invented – and put the rest of us into flippers. Sep was the first to do this. He later said that the great American coach Bob Kiphuth, who reputedly could not swim a stroke, had told him his secret: “Ninety per cent personality and 10 per cent ability.” What I remember was patience and kindness, the antithesis of the brutality that was to consume so much of sport in the years ahead. In 1952, Sep was appointed an Olympic coach and in the same year he married Lexie, who was famous for wearing one of the first ultra-brief bikinis, which she made herself out of towelling. She was also brave, diving with Sep off the bogie hole. Four years later, at the Melbourne Olympics, Australian swimmers won eight gold medals. You could spot the freestyle that Sep taught or inspired. When the elbow lifted, the fingers skimmed over the surface of the water. The result was shoulder power rather than arm movement. “Get that right and you’ll swim like a dolphin,” he said to me. The day I got it right, I managed a second to Murray Rose, who would go on to become an Olympian. We were 11 years old at the time, and Murray finished almost a pool length ahead, but it gave me a story for life. Thereafter I graduated to any pool I could find all over the world.
My Michelin-starred best pool on earth, as regular readers will know, is the North Sydney wonder pool, which lies spectacularly beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge across from the other-worldly Opera House. Built in the 1930s and adorned with art-deco dolphins and frogs, it is known as the wonder pool because no fewer than 86 world records have been broken there, itself a world record. Once, a sculler and a swimmer raced over its 50 metres and the swimmer won. Those who knew about swimming cleaned out the bookies.
Speaking of bookies, Sep was also celebrated as an illegal SP bookie. SP meant starting price and in horse-race-crazed Australia, the pre-Tote bookie was as important as your mother. He received supplicants with bad watches and silver cufflinks, he knew secrets and he even paid out. I suspect my father dealt with Sep on urgent non-swimming matters during the racing season. They both drank at Billy the Pig’s and might have stepped out of Damon Runyon – my dad in his snap brim hat, Sep with his shades and dolls. I would say they both had the grace.