Surf Lifesaving ironman | Invincible ironman John Holt’s iconic Aussie invention

In January 1979, John Holt was at the top of world ironman racing.

He’d been racing for about a decade and won nearly everything he entered.

At that point, he had entered 123 races since his debut at age 16 back in 1967. His record was astonishing – 95 wins, 11 seconds and eight thirds.

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But on January 20 of 1979 during a race at North Bondi, Holt knew his time was done. He was only 28, but he’d started his own surveying business which was causing his once-intense training schedule to lean out.

“Someone came past me and beat me who shouldn’t have,” he told Wide World of Sports.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not trying as hard as I should’. That afternoon, there was another race and I wasn’t going to go in it.

“But I got in the water to do this race and I was running third … and I kept on saying to myself, the whole race ‘I don’t want to be here. I haven’t done enough preparation. I can’t let these guys beat me’.

“Then a wave came through that would have been no bigger than half a metre, and I caught it and went straight past them and won. 

“So I ran up the beach, and the commentator came up to me and said ‘oh you’re back on track for next year’s Nationals’, and I told him ‘that’s the last time you’ll ever see me race’.”

He was true to his word, and he never raced another ironman.

Holt grew up in Sans Souci, a peninsular suburb on Botany Bay, at the mouth of the Georges River. He learned to swim in the old Sans Souci and Ramsgate surf baths, and had been surfing since he was 10.

But he never had any desire to join the surf club.

Crossing new bridges

That desire changed when the Captain Cook Bridge – which links Sans Souci and Cronulla – was opened, and he befriended several young guns from the Cronulla SLSC.

Those friends were Kevin Nielsen – who would go on to become a renowned swimming coach – and the Kerr brothers, of which Andrew would represent Australia in water polo at four successive Olympic games.

“They all came across and trained at the Olympic baths at Sans Souci, and I was training with them every day,” he said. 

“I was keeping up with or beating them, and the coach said, ‘Oh, well you really should join the surf club’. And so I joined the surf club.”

By that point, Holt had been board riding for a number of years as well, and found the transition to watercraft simple. He started his bronze medallion and took part in his first race the same afternoon he completed it.

He won that first race, although the record books say otherwise.

“I was disqualified from my first race. I won it, but I was only entered in the team race and not the individual race,” he said.

“They both took place at the same time on the same course. But I wasn’t entered into the individual race and so I was disqualified.”

The technicality was enough of a scandal to make the news in the surf coverage the next day. His mum still has the clippings. But whether or not the record books show he won that race was irrelevant. Holt was hooked, and he was fast.

He entered his first Australian junior ironman just months later and smoked the field, winning by some 250m.

“The guy who came second was still at the turning point and I’d finished in the last leg. I came fifth in the seniors race the same year, and that was the beginning of my career,” he said. 

“I remember thinking ‘Jesus, this is good’. I got my name in the paper every Saturday and Sunday and they would read it out at the school assembly. So I decided to be a surf lifesaver and not a board rider.”

That decision would eventually take him around the world.

He won the inaugural World Championship at Point Leo in Victoria, and then again in South Africa in 1974. He would travel to South Africa on several other tours, as well as New Zealand.

A superstar of Aussie sport

To say he owned the 1970s would be an understatement. His success led him to be invited to take part in the Superstars of Australian Sport – a multidisciplinary competition taking the best from each sport and pitting them against each other in a series of skills tests.

Held in early 1977, Holt was up against champions including swimmer Michael Wenden, Aussie rules legends Leigh Matthews and Ron Barassi, squash star Geoff Hunt, and rugby league star Graham Eadie, not to mention cricketers Greg Chappell and David Hookes among others.

During the competition, the group was out for dinner when Holt struck up a conversation with one of the producers of the show, who claimed he was involved in a project that was about to “revolutionise world cricket”.

That man was David Hill, who at the time was working for Kerry Packer. They were days away from announcing World Series Cricket.

“He said we’re about to revolutionise cricket, and I said ‘what do you mean?’

“He said we’re going to have 13 cameras, and if it doesn’t move, I’m going to kick it, and then we’ll show it 10 times from different angles.”

While Holt wasn’t a cricket fan – there’s an old saying among surfies that ‘cricket was invented to keep ‘insert-insult-of-choice-here’ out of the surf on Saturday’ – but he said there was something about Hill’s surety that gave his statement weight.

“They absolutely did that.”

As for the competition itself, it included 100m and 800m foot races, tennis (he said he beat Greg Chappell but David Hookes’ serve blew him off the court), swimming, rowing, football (taking penalty shots at a professional goalkeeper), weightlifting challenges and an obstacle course.

Holt finished second to Graham Eadie.

Discovering hidden legends

Now 70, Holt has now been a member of the Cronulla SLSC for more than 50 years, and for those involved in the sport, it’s hard to quantify how much he has done for surf lifesaving in Australia. 

After watching a generation of kids struggle to paddle on other boards, Holt designed his own board for kids to paddle on. Today, it’s the standard Nipper race board used across the country.

In March 2004, he was among the inaugural class to be inducted into the Surf Life Saving Australia Hall of Fame. Others included in that class were Barry Rodgers, Ken Vidler, Grant Kenny and Trevor Hendy.

Then in 2014 he was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal for Service to Sport, Surf Life Saving, Triathlon Competition, Administration and Media.

He is now being recognised in a new campaign – Discovering Hidden Legends to recognise the everyday heroes who patrol Australia’s beaches.

Holt will be included in the Walk of Fame at Cronulla, which will share images and stories of SLS volunteers. 

Each summer, more than 190,000 Surf Life Saving Australia members volunteer their time to help run 314 surf lifesaving clubs. Of these members, 45,000 volunteer as patrolling surf lifesavers, making about 9000 rescues and 1.75 million preventative actions to keep the public out of harm’s way.

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