Surf’s up: Irish lifesavers hoping to catch the medals

Ireland’s team at the World Surf Lifesaving Championships in Australia this month are determined to do us proud

From left: Denise Bolger, Lily Barrett, Emer Kelly and Róisín Cahill will represent Ireland at the World Surf Lifesaving Championships.

From left: Denise Bolger, Lily Barrett, Emer Kelly and Róisín Cahill will represent Ireland at the World Surf Lifesaving Championships.

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Like most people her age, 21-year-old Lily Barrett is busy with college, family, friends and planning her future.

But, in between study and social life, the Clare woman also swims twice a day and fits in some running and gym training – the reason for this hectic schedule is because from November 16th, she, along with six others, will represent Ireland at the World Surf Lifesaving Championships in Australia.

The sport, which is undoubtedly extremely tough, is also an essential life skill and, because of our less-than-tropical climate, Irish participants always do well in competitions. Last September, the national junior surf lifesaving team took home 44 medals (20 gold, 16 silver and eight bronze) at the European championships, which were held at venues in Clare and Limerick.

“Living on the west coast of Ireland, our training is always tough,” says Barrett, who has been competing since she was 15. “We don’t have great weather conditions but we always have to adapt whether the sun is shining or it’s lashing rain and really windy – we train really hard and this teaches us to be mentally tough and able for anything which is of course vital in this discipline and I am lucky enough to be from Clare as our trainers are great so we have always done very well.

“Even though training for the championships is only for a few months, we all swim throughout the year in order to keep ourselves in top shape and also have to be very aware of diet, nutrition and getting enough sleep – it’s a very dynamic sport and very hard work but I absolutely love it, particularly as it is also a means of saving lives.”

International referee Clare McGrath agrees and says the event is a vital skill which encompasses so many different activities. “The sport of surf lifesaving exists to encourage life savers to maintain the skills, drills and physical fitness required for performing their lifesaving duties,” she says.

‘Multi-disciplined’

“It is truly multi-disciplined and takes place in the pool, the beach and in the ocean. It has close ties to swimming, athletics, kayaking, rowing, surfing and power boating and is based on the equipment and skills which lifeguards use to perform lifesaving rescues.

“The athletes train all year round but during the winter months, most is done in the pool with around five to six sessions every week. From Easter on – once the sea temperature improves – they include three to four sessions outdoors while during June, July and August, they train six days weekly on the ocean, two-hour sessions, mostly in the morning because many work on the beaches as lifeguards.”

Indeed, Lily Barrett has grown up with the sport and sees it almost as an extension of herself. “We have a mobile home on White Strand so growing up my brothers and I were always in the sea,” says Barrett, whose three siblings – Dylan (25), Turlough (18) and Callum (15) – are also heavily involved in the sport and have competed at both national and international levels.

“The surf lifesaving club was going on outside our door, so we got involved and loved it from the beginning. When my older brother started, it was a fairly new sport so there wasn’t even the proper equipment but over the years it has grown and I guess we have grown with it.

“I really love the challenge – every day brings something different as the weather, the waves and the environment are constantly changing and at competition level, there are lots of very different events so it’s always really stimulating. It’s great fun, a fantastic way to stay fit, is hugely beneficial in terms of actually saving a life and I have made so many lifelong friends.”

The Clare woman has won many national and international awards over the years and physiotherapist Emma Sheehy says keeping in shape and learning how to avoid injury is an essential skill for all the competitors at the upcoming event.

“Surf lifesaving is a very physically and mentally demanding sport and because there is such a variety of events there is a specific level of strength and aerobic fitness required for each one,” she says. “Injury prevention is a huge topic of debate at the moment and given the nature of the sport, a significant proportion of injuries is unavoidable and linked to collisions between competitors or environmental factors.

“But aside from contusions and bruises, the main injuries I have seen when treating the athletes are ankle sprains, rotator cuff strains and meniscal injuries of the knee.”

The experienced physiotherapist, who also trained and competed in the sport, says there are ongoing decisions surrounding elements of training and competitions which can be addressed.

‘Link to injuries’

“The areas which have significant evidence regarding their link to injuries are inadequate and unspecific warm-ups and ungraded overload of training volume,” she says. “Warm-ups for water sports should begin out of the water in a dynamic fashion for approximately 10 minutes prior to the water-based warm-up. And although overload is necessary for improvements in aerobic and strength training, this should be achieved by monitoring the time and intensity of training.

“There is mixed evidence as to how specific this graded increase should be. However, my rule of thumb is to never exceed your volume by more than 20 per cent without adequate rest and guidance. Other factors which may influence one’s injury risk are failure to address previous injuries, the use of steroids, strength deficits and abnormal techniques and biomechanics.”

The World Surf Lifesaving Championships take place from November 16th to December 2nd. The competition, which is held every two years, features pool and ocean events and includes participants from 30-35 countries, including Ireland. The 2018 national team (coached by Brendan McGrath) includes: Bernard Cahill (Clare), Joseph Mooney (Sligo), Odhrán Savage (Waterford), Lily Barrett (Clare), Róisín Cahill (Clare), Emer Kelly (Wicklow) and Denise Bolger (Wexford).

Hopefully avoiding injury, Lily Barrett and her teammates want to do Ireland proud at the world championships. “We’ve been training hard and are really looking forward to heading to Australia and taking on the challenges,” she says. “And we’re all delighted to be representing our country.”

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