Post Newspapers, 31 August 2019, Page 46
The belt man who was the best
Bernie Kelly, the 1947 national surf lifesaving belt race champion, is now in the Gallery of Greats.
Bernie, who died in 2015, was represented by his family when he became the inaugural inductee in Swanbourne-Nedlands Surf Life Saving Club’s newly-created honour gallery this month.
The Swanbourne club also unveiled photos of all its Open Australian championship medal winners and WA open state championship gold medallists at the event.
But Bernie Kelly holds a unique place in the history of the club.
From the 1920s to the 1970s, the belt race championship was the holy grail for the best surf swimmers – an event that demanded strength, stamina, skill and speed.
Depending on the conditions, it could be a heart-straining swim, with belt men towing up to 150m of heavy line to simulate a rescue.
Bernie excelled in this event and was the club champion from 1945 to 1947.
In 1946 and 1947 he was a member of the club’s state championship-winning senior rescue and resuscitation teams.
In 1947, a combined NSW/Queensland team visited WA to compete in lead-up carnivals and the state championships, and in the visiting team was Ray Matheson, a place-getter in the belt race at the previous year’s Australian championships.
Bernie beat Ray convincingly.
Encouraged by this, Bernie and three other swimmers, including Leighton junior Lockie Cottman, went to the 1947 Australian championships in Queensland, helped by a club fundraising effort.
At Queensland’s Greenmount beach, Bernie and Lockie stunned the eastern states surfing world to win the senior and junior belt races.
Bernie’s Australian championship title was the fi rst ever to be won by a WA competitor in any discipline and it capped off a brilliant season for the quietly spoken Bernie, a graceful but very powerful swimmer.
Similarly, his state title was the first won by a Swanbourne-Nedlands member since the club’s formation in 1932.
In following years the demands of his family’s newsagency left Bernie with less and less time to train, and so he gradually faded from the competitive scene.
Bernie’s exceptional success in 1946-47 was a turning point for Surf Life Saving WA and each year the Bernie Kelly medal goes to the most outstanding competitor at the State Championships.
RIGHT: Bernie Kelly’s son, Peter, Kelly, and granddaughter, Sasha, were invited to the ceremony at Swanbourne Surf Life Saving Club.
Photo: Miriam Williams
Club Championship Honour Boards, State and Australian Champions Hall of Fame* and Gallery of Greats now on display in Clubrooms.
*State Open Champions, Australian Open and Junior Champions/Medal Winners, SLSWA Awards of Excellence Winners
“Similarly, his state title was the first won by a Swanbourne-Nedlands member since the club’s formation in 1932.” – to clarify is his 1947 Open Surf Belt State Title was the first for the Club in the surf belt and as an individual in the water arena. Our first individual Open State Title was in the beach sprint in 1934 with Ron Claybrook.