THEY were the toast of the country, earning big bucks to race along the nation's best beaches, as children ate cereal - 'iron man food' - from boxes plastered with their faces.
Over more than a decade, Grant 'The King' Kenny, Trevor Hendy, Dwayne Thuys and our own Craig 'Riddo' Riddington and Guy Leech, now both 57, were kings of the beaches, drawing huge crowds to their nail-biting iron man competitions and associated TV coverage. There was a hit movie made about the first Coolangatta Gold event on the Gold Coast. Iron men were flown to California to star in Baywatch. 20,000 people packed Manly Beach to watch them race: "you couldn't see sand," says one local in the crowd that day.
There were even more people along the 42-kilometre Coolangatta Gold course, so many that Riddington once famously missed the funnel to the finish line and had to crowd surf to get up the beach, stage diving to third instead of second (to Leech), he says. "Every time you came out of the water, there would be 10,000 people on each stop - and they would race on a car or pushbike from each stop to the next," he says, when the two reunite at their former Manly Beach stomping ground. "I just couldn't get through the crowd."
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He later starred in an episode of then hit Aussie soapie Hey Dad, as himself.
Leech, one of the iron men starring on the cereal packets, says he realised his "world had changed" when, aged 21, he went to an Adelaide McDonalds after a shopping centre promotion - and had to be locked in when crowds swarmed. "There was security there, and 1000 people waiting. That's when I thought, 'this thing has just gone stupid," he says.
"Our sport is a really weird one in that it was at its peak when we raced it and it's never been the same since. We went from a few people cheering us at school swimming carnivals to iron man races where there's thousands and thousands on the beaches. Grant Kenny was flying in on helicopters. The stars aligned and we were there at the perfect storm and the perfect time. But I look back now and think, 'How did we handle the pressure?'"
The surf lifesaving movement began in 1907, with races held eight years later - ostensibly to keep members fit between patrols and comprising the boat race, march past, R&R and surf races. In 1966, inspired by a US event, they launched the more competitive ironman competition at the Australian Championships at Coolangatta beach in Queensland. It was won by Grant's dad Hayden Kenny.
The fast pace of the competition - and the bronzed Adonis stature of its competitors - quickly inspired sponsors, TV networks and audiences, until by the 1980's, it was big business.
And then, suddenly, by the new millennium, the golden days were over. 'Cereal wars' sponsors Kellogg's and then Uncle Toby's (for the breakaway series) pulled out, prizemoney dwindled ... and so did the star factor, crowds and TV viewers.
So, what happened?
Leech explains the demise like this: "Kellogg's and Toby's were always going to keep putting money into it, so long as they kept getting an extra square metre of space in Coles and Woolworths. Because that extra space meant millions and millions of dollars - making what they spent on our sport piddling! But it was always going to get to the point where they couldn't get any more market share in the supermarkets."
New CEO's and marketers came in as well, he says, wanting to make their own mark and do something different. Its big stars - Grant Kenny, followed by Leech, Riddington and Hendy - departed; and there was no succession plan. The entertainers had left the beach. "The stars of the movie were gone and we had never said, 'let's make sure the next upcoming actor is there to keep the movie going'," says Leech. "The sport just died."
He continues on the movie theme. "If you don't have the right characters in a movie, you don't want to watch it. Our sport would have been dead and buried if there were six guys that were good at it but were bad in front of the camera and didn't appeal to the public."
Riddington also lays blame at the SLSA powers that took over the competitions when the cereal giants bowed out. "Their philosophy was, 'We don't owe these guys a living'," he says. "But these guys were bringing people into their sport and their surf clubs, they brought a following. It was back to minimal money, minimal promotion of the athlete and minimal care for the athlete and that's how it still is today."
Thirty years on, both former iron men still live in the Beaches, and are husbands and fathers running their own life saving businesses.
Riddington is the founder and President of Sea Australia, a surf education company that he and Leech initially set up after they had to rescue a large group of people from a rip during the ad break of a Portsea ironman competition.
Leech is a successful defibrillator educator and distributor, a business he started after being unable to save one of his good paddling mates from a Sudden Cardiac Arrest.
Born a week apart, the dynamic local duo still turn heads. As we chat, one of Manly Surf Lifesaving Club's permanent old bench-warmers sings out to me: 'Geez love, that's a blast from the past, seeing them two back on the beach together'.
But they reckon they don't catch up enough. "Life goes on and you do other things," says Leech, adding that as his daughters weren't interested in surf lifesaving, he gradually dropped out of the scene.
But they easily pick up where they left off: during the interview, Leech makes plans to join Riddington on his morning Manly to Shelly Beach swims. It's almost as though their friendship has come full circle: the two met as 12-year-olds at the elite Killarney Heights swim squad, with Riddington encouraging Leech to join the Manly surf lifesaving club and then compete in the Iron Man competition. ("I'm still giving myself upper-cuts for that," Riddington laughs now. "How many more wins would I have had?!")
Despite Riddington being a potential Olympic swimmer, neither man regrets making the switch to iron man. "The pool, you're doing the same thing, every day," says Riddington. "Training for iron man, every session is different."
Adds Leech: "You're at the beach, you're in the sun and it's social and you can talk. When the sport boomed and we were at the start, we had the added advantage of seven years of swim training telling us how to prepare properly against surf club guys who were talented but didn't know how to do it."
However, the training was intense, he says. "It was a 24/7 gig. You didn't get a break from it. If you wanted to be good at it, you had to be so good at everything - and so you trained all day and you dedicated your whole life - food, sleep, everything - to it. I was willing to do whatever it took to win. Unless you loved it to death, you couldn't do it properly."
So, did they love it to death? Did they burn out? Well, yes. Riddington had to retire early, aged 29, after a debilitating blood clot stopped circulation to his arm. "I had no choice. I tried to compete but that finished me really," he says. "My life in one fell swoop changed and I had no plan. I lost my sport, I lost my income, I lost my health and my identity. It was hell."
He opened a Mexican restaurant in Manly - Tequilas - but found it hard to make peace with leaving his chosen sport. Promises of support - such as a promotional tour to America - never materialised; he says he was "dropped like a hot potato".
The guy once known as the 'mayor of Manly' - for his last race, many of the thousands-strong crowd donned 'Riddo' masks - is disappointed that he never finished his sporting career or won the ironman events he thought he could win. "At the time, I thought, 'how could I live life not completing what I started?' Now I look back and think, 'well, that's made me who I am'. Had that not happened, maybe I wouldn't have three kids and a wife and a house and a career I love and am dedicated to. It could have been totally different had I spent another three years in sport, got money that way and never looked at the next step."
Music helped pull him back up, post early-retirement, Riddington says. A bunch of iron men - Dwayne Thuys, Guy Andrews, Kenny, Hendy, Riddo - had been playing in Hendy's garage. "We ended up supporting The Beach Boys in a national tour. I went from there and I really got into it. That gave me a passion." He later recorded an album, before throwing himself into swimming, surf and water safety education.
Similarly, Leech all but disappeared from the beach when he left in 1995. "The earlier you are famous, the bigger the change back to normal life," he says. "You have to get out of what you were doing.
"You've got to remember, back when we were doing it, it was so exciting, it was new, it was bigger, it was fun to be in. Riddo and I were there when the sport started, we were a couple of the pivotal people in it. We lived through the hype of the series, and then the breakaway comp, the whole thing.
"If you look back, it was the most exciting part of your whole life. We were the best of what we did in the world. Taking that away - it was like, 'well, what do I do?' I can tell you, having kids and all the other stuff I've done is unbelievable but the sheer excitement of winning a race in front of 20,000 people plus live TV after six months of sacrifice - you don't get that peak anymore. You've got to come to terms with that."
Do they see a future in the iron man sport, these days? Leech: "Not now, no. Unless things change. It's a hobby. It's not a living. We got a million viewers for the first Uncle Toby's series. They get 20,000 people now."
Riddington agrees. "You wouldn't know who is in it. Not one paper even writes up about the surf lifesaving Nationals. The Nippers organisation just oozes a healthy Australian way of life, I can't work out why no-one is marketing it."
Neither can run anymore, but both are regularly approached to compete in surf lifesaving masters' events. With their massive competitive streaks, they decline - the rationale being they would never be OK with second place. Leech, who famously pushed himself so hard he ended up in hospital - after winning - says: "If you can't win, you just disappoint yourself. I'm used to being in the fight. Those days are done and when you're comfortable with it, that's fine."
And he doesn't regret leaving. "I got to the start line and I wasn't as nervous as I should have been and the training had become not that much fun and I wasn't willing to do the extra bits to win," he says. "I was always big on not wanting to come 15th and have someone say, 'He was a good ironman five years ago.'"
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