Stephen Burn vividly remembers coming off Mount Maunganui's Main Beach beach as a frozen 5-year-old nipper, with blue lips and shaking, and being treated to a hot, sugary cup of tea, dispensed in a giant china teapot.

Cheryl Leuthart (nee Lawson), meanwhile, used to drag her feet on the way to nippers on a Sunday, hoping to avoid the warm-up run.

The pair are pioneer nippers who joined together on Sunday as part of Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service's 50 year celebrations of running a nippers programme.
The celebrations included cake, a mayoral address, the ceremonial march-past and the cacophony of this year's nippers intake engaging in games.

Burn, who now lived on Waiheke Island, was in the first intake in 1968, while Leuthart, now based in New Plymouth, joined as an 11-year-old in 1975, the year girls were allowed in.

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"Being in the nippers definitely put us in good stead, later in life. When Bob Mitchell was our coach, we'd spend hours standing at attention and at ease, with eyes on the horizon - they were mundane things but they taught us amazing discipline," Leuthart says.

Mitchell was also a pioneer. While he was on holiday with his wife Shirley in Sydney in early 1968 when he went back to his old club, North Cronulla, he first saw some of the first Australian nippers in action and vowed to bring the concept back to Mount Maunganui.

The first club meeting was held on November 2, 1968 and attracted 41 boys, with Mitchell as president and John Burn - father of Stephen - secretary. Many of the founding members were wharfies with young families.

Mount Maunganui led the way for others, with the likes of Whakatane, Waimarama and Piha quick to write to Burn asking for information on how to set up the programme, prompting an Auckland Nippers' Championship held in 1970.

Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service celebrates 50 years of nippers. Photo / George Novak
Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service celebrates 50 years of nippers. Photo / George Novak

Mitchell died in an accident on the wharf in 1978 but Burn Snr and Mitchell's widow Shirley (now Youngman) helped celebrate on Sunday, along with others part of the Mount-based club's history.

"I guess you've got to say it's achieved its purpose over those years," John Burn said.

"It's provided a pathway through to senior surf lifesaving and provided a good bit of water sense and water safety."

Those first Mount nippers also got to pioneer other surf lifesaving innovations. The club was one of the first in the country to introduce inflatable rescue boats for patrolling.

"All those things we learned at such a young age - by the time we were 14 and on patrol, we knew how the beach was working, where people were and how they could get into trouble and where the safe swimming spots were. It was just instinctive," Stephen Burn said.

The club rebuilt in 1978, with that building demolished in April to make way for the fourth iteration of the clubhouse - a $3 million project expected to be finished early next year. It will cater for Tauranga's booming population and the greater demands on lifeguards as first respondents, although another $200,000 is still needed to complete the project.

The public can donate at www.mountlifeguards.co.nz/donate

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About Nippers:
Nippers is a surf lifesaving programme for kids aged from 5-13.
The nippers movement started at the Nambucca Heads club in New South Wales in 1961, with North Cronulla becoming the first Sydney club to pick it up in 1963.
Several NZ clubs - most notably South Brighton in Christchurch - had activities for 'junior juniors' that included swimming training and participation in the march past at carnivals.
Bob Mitchell brought the nippers concept to Mount Maunganui in 1968, after visiting his old club, North Cronulla, on holiday.
Piha, Waimarama and Whakatane were among other clubs who requested information and soon established their own nippers programmes.
Girls officially joined the Mount Maunganui nippers in 1975 and the nippers club was officially incorporated into the MMLS in 1982.