Feature: Allan Mundy - lifeguard of the year

By Carly Gibbs

Adrenalin and competition mingled with a sense of camaraderie. At 45, Allan Mundy is lifeguard of the year and he's still as passionate as a first-time Nipper

Some swimmers realise they're in the crap. Others don't. It's not until a fit guard pops out of the water, lungs heaving and rescue tube bobbing, that they get that sinking feeling.

"Some of them - we are so good at what we do - don't even realise they're in that much trouble," says veteran lifeguard Allan Mundy. "They actually think you're being a hinderance."

The 45-year-old has dived under breaking waves and been pummelled by the salty Mount sea for 30 years.

But he doesn't look weathered and, dressed in a Hopper bus shade of yellow, is overwhelmingly enthusiastic about surf lifesaving.

His club, Omanu, is the biggest in the country with 900 members.

Waves pounding the beach

This month, Mundy was named Lottery Grants Board Lifeguard of the Year at the BP Surf Rescue Media Awards.

We've decided to interview and photograph him at his second home, or "family bach", the Omanu Surf Lifesaving Club.

Out on the deck, Mundy, in bare feet, swings a rescue tube over his shoulder and says, with a cheeky smile to photographer John Borren: "Don't worry, I've been watching Top Model."

It's a private sort of place for a photo shoot at this time of year. We're the only ones here in the early morning and it's quiet save for the thrum of waves pounding the beach.

Mundy's father, Barry, was a founding member of the Omanu club, but he and his identical twin brother, Dennis, initially joined the Mount Maunganui club when Allan was 16.

He says the two were lucky enough to work with and learn from people considered legends on the local scene.

 Mundy is today, somewhat of a legend and stalwart himself, although he modestly shrugs this off.

Watching swimmers and surfers

 His club obviously thinks he's special. They nominated him for Lifeguard of the Year in the eastern region and he was then selected to go through to the nationals. He won and was presented with his award at Government House on July 26.

In the late 1980s, Mundy spent five years as Surf Lifesaving's development officer for the central North Island, while his brother held the same role for the Northern region.

"There were only four in the country at that time and two of them were Mundys," he says.

His brother, who has just moved back to the Bay, has been training lifeguards in the Pacific islands.

Despite knowing that lifeguards are scanning the water from the top level, years of dedication means Mundy finds it hard not to watch swimmers and surfers.

He takes it one step further, choosing to come to the beach even when on holiday from his job as head of the science department at Mount Maunganui College.

We don't want fatalities

There are days that are full-on, the worst being those when someone drowns.

"The first for me was when I was 16 ... I was violently ill afterwards and when I came back to the club they gave me a rum and coke and said, 'Get this down you'. I can't drink it to this day. That was how they did things. Now we support our people dramatically more.

"I think the skill set in top level is that you know when to say no and there have been opportunities when we've had to say no. That's always hard, but the reality of finding someone in the middle of the night, when it's 40 knots, is pretty minimal anyway. If you want to see darkness you go out to sea when there's no moon and you can't see a thing. So we could have turned out on occasions like that, but we really would have been putting our lives at risk and the likelihood of finding people in those conditions is basically nil.

"We don't want fatalities of lifeguards, it's as simple as that. It would be devastating for the movement."

The Omanu club, which covers 8.5km of beach, hasn't had a fatality in three years.

"If we go back on average, we get about one-and-a-half each season. So this year we were stoked. We've seen big drop in the number of local kids getting rescued and I'd attribute that to that Nipper programme."

Mundy has worked in the ambulance service and says that with lifeguarding you dive right into the action, whereas as an ambulance officer you arrive at the scene after the initial impact.

"The best thing about this organisation is that it's an extended family."

An excellent role model

And Mundy is always looking for additions to that family from the pool of teens at the college.

"If I see a kid has potential, I'll certainly encourage them to get involved. I could go to school now, it's interval, and all the clubbies - the Mounties, the Omanu kids and all the Pap kids - will be hanging out together, and they do that on the beach. I think it's really cool, they're like little lambs in a paddock, you know, jumping around together. That's really cool because I can see that's the next generation of lifeguards coming through."

Mundy runs the aquatic side of the TECT rescue helicopter and if there's a boat in trouble, even during school hours, Mundy's skills are such that his boss, Terry Collett, has given the okay for him to leave class.

"I've needed to do that once. It's not as if it's a daily occurrence but the spin-off is, obviously we're a big campus and if someone does get injured, I'm the first point of call."

 In 2008, Mundy was a finalist in the New Zealand Rescue of the Year and won the Bay of Plenty Rescue of the Year for being first there and managing the scene, when 13-year-old Breeze Brunton died after being hit by a logging truck outside the college.

Surf Life Saving Eastern Region business manager Sarah Lockwood says Mundy is an invaluable member of the "whole community". Not only is he multi-skilled, but he is an excellent role model.

On the beach every patrol

Mundy is humble about what makes him special.

"There are some families within Omanu who have been here for a long time and they're still active in the club so it's kind of surreal to be nominated for an award because I'm in some amazing company here, so it's good to be pointed out ... it's quite humbling, really."

This summer will be the first in many years when Mundy will not be a patrol captain. He is now part of the national surf lifesaving committee and has needed to "pull back a little".

But he'll still be on the beach every patrol. "It's great fun and an excuse to come down to the beach for eight hours.We don't have a bach in our family and this is the bach. I'm lucky enough to come down here with my son and my wife, Hayley, will pop down here on the odd occasion and bring us lunch, and we'll just camp here all day and it's great."

What does Hayley think of Mundy's permanent residency at the club over summer?

"I know when I go down sometimes the credit card is going to get a hammering.

 "Her only concern is that I do get involved boots and all and it's good having someone in your ear saying: 'Are you sure you want to do this?' Because you know what you're getting into.

"That's been great counsel. If I had done all the things I wanted to do, I wouldn't do them as well as I do."

Hayley used to be lifeguard and that's how she and Mundy met.

"I think the challenge is not to expect everyone to have the same passion as you. We're so time-poor nowadays, it's a real treasure when people come up and say: 'I can do the patrol.' You really appreciate that."

Mundy is still involved in the call-out squad once summer patrol is finished.

The top masters team

"What we're seeing now is the little kayaks all year round. And skin divers (free-diving spear fishermen). There's a big focus on obesity in the media but what I also see in the sports arena is people pushing the barriers, and not in a bad way, but they're getting fitter and that's inherently built around a bit of risk and that means we get busy."

Mundy reckons the Omanu club wouldn't be as strong if it didn't have Mount Maunganui and Papamoa clubs on either side supporting one another.

"Along this coastline, every national title is held. We're the top masters team, they're the top competitive team, they're the top junior team and it doesn't happen by chance, so it's great."

Mundy's 9-year-old son, Harrison, is already showing promising signs of becoming a lifeguard like his father.

"He certainly enjoys being on the patrol and he does Nippers. It's all just fun at the moment, we don't want to push him.

"He'll decide if he wants to be a Cory Hutchings or not and that's his decision. But I think, well I'm pretty sure, he'll certainly patrol."

And with a father as experienced as Mundy, he's sure to do well.

As well as being the country's lifeguard of the year, Mundy was examiner instructor of the year two years ago and holds many service awards.

But he's quick to point out: "I'm not in the twilight of my career in any way, shape or form."

Friend and Omanu Surf Lifesaving Club member Denny Enright says Mundy is methodical, thorough, generous and is "the guy keeping New Zealand Surf on their toes".

What's his best quality?

"Himself," Enright says. "He's an all-round good bugger."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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