Far away from the excitement of competing for Australia at world championships or the Commonwealth Games, Bradley Woodward has – through his other sporting passion – found himself in gut-wrenching, life and death situations as a surf lifesaver.

The 26-year-old physiotherapist student, who trains under NSWIS Head Coach Adam Kable, revealed in his five-part NSWIS Lights Up documentary series – https://www.nswis.com.au/nswis-lights-up/ – says that like most surf lifesavers he’s been called upon to rescue people who’ve found themselves out of their depth and struggling.

“The beaches along the Central Coast . . . yeah . . . there’s a few that can be dangerous at the best of times,” said Woodward after a treacherous 2023/24 summer in which 99 drowned across Australia.

“Calm people just put up their hand. They know they’re in a bad situation, but you know they’re well aware they can swim, and you get to them [and] they’re very thankful, but there’s certainly the other case where people are quite panicked.

Brad Woodward as a lifesaver.

 “I’ve been lucky. Some [lifesavers] go out sometimes without a board or a floatation device and I think that’s where they get in a bit of trouble. People try to grab onto you – latch to you – but I think I’ve always had a board or a tube, so it’s been alright. You just give it to them, and they jump on the board or hold on to the tube and you pull them back in.”

Born and bred within earshot of the roaring waves of Shelley Beach, and five minutes from the local swimming pool, Woodward couldn’t avoid becoming a water baby.  He started swimming lessons at 10 months; at two his grandparents noted he darted around the backyard pool like a ‘fish’; at five he joined the Shelley Beach Lifesaver’s Club and graduated through the ranks to win world championship surf lifesaving medals for Australia, while one of his fondest and earliest school memories is winning a race at the annual swimming carnival.

“I was like, ‘oh, I didn’t expect that,’” said Woodward of the blue ribbon. “And then I’m kind of just kept going to the next level. I think I might’ve got to state and, all of a sudden, I was like, ‘oh, I’m not too bad at this’ and then I think my mum just like said: ‘Oh, do you want to [swim] another year’ and, yeah, basically from there I never stopped.”

A shoulder injury resulted in Woodward, who loved the explosiveness of the butterfly, focusing his attentions on backstroke – the discipline where exponents go forward backwards – when he turned 12 because he performed well in the stroke at the NSW Country Championships.  

“I think it was just [a case of me being] at that kind of critical age where you’re starting to decide what your main event is,” he said. “So, I still grew up doing a lot of the other strokes, but yeah, I kept excelling in backstroke.

“I don’t think it was necessarily a choice so much as just I fell into backstroke because that’s what I was doing the best and I think you enjoy doing what you’re going the best in.”

Woodward, who has won a swag of silver and bronze medals at the world championships and Commonwealth Games, said a key to his success was appreciating the need to complete the ‘one percenters’ early from a young age.

 “I think it’s just a matter of, you know, if you want to be a professional athlete, [act] like a professional athlete,” he said.

“At my age my body doesn’t recover quite as well as what it did at 18. So, I think being able to go home and use recovery boots, ice bath, seeing the physio on a regular basis, stretching, doing your warmups properly, all that kind of stuff is so critical.

“Swimming’s taught me a lot. I think probably resilience is the biggest one, probably patience as well. I think with resilience, I have had a few injuries . . . I also probably have had a few cases of getting sick at the wrong time, which hasn’t been great.

“But I think being able to just almost just shake it off and just go, ‘okay, what’s done is done. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve just got to move on, move forward, and do what I can’ has really set me up well for life for just basically going, ‘okay, if something happens, I can’t dwell on it. I’ve just got to move on and move forward’.

“The other one, yeah, is patience because I think so much from an early age you always want more, and more, and more, and you want things quicker – and I think it’s still the case today, I want to go quicker, and I want to do it soon!

“I think being able to be patient and just go, ‘okay, you know, we’ve got a plan, maybe it might take a year or two years or four years but, you know, the goal is to get there in the end’. If you just take your time and enjoy the process more than actually trying to achieve the outcome, I think you enjoy it a lot more.”

Woodward, who is described by the respected aquatic sports journalist Ian Hanson as the ‘unsung hero of Australian swimming’ described his being a member of the Australian 4 x 100m Individual Medley relay team that won bronze at the 2023 World Aquatic Championships in Fukuoka, Japan as – so far, almost – his career highlight.

“We probably weren’t expected to medal,” Woodward said. “And for me, personally, I wasn’t particularly happy with my 100m at the start of the week, even though it was actually a PB I thought I could do better.

“If we had any chance of medalling, I knew I had to get us off to a strong start. I think I almost took a little bit of strength from that . . . knowing I had to do [a good race]. And being able to start off in that PB and get [Australia] off to a good start was really exciting.

“And then to watch, Zach [Stubblety-Cook], who’s an Olympic champion, go next. And then Matt Temple split an amazing time. And then Kyle Chalmers – who, you know, never lets the team down – finish it off and come in third was super exciting.”

For Woodward, who’s dream of representing Australia at the Olympics burns brightly, his greatest hope is that he’s remembered by his teammates as someone who always gave his all for them.  

“If people can just go, ‘he was a resilient athlete, he turned up and put in his best effort every single day and was hardworking’, I think I would  be very happy . . . they’re just values that I really admire.

“I think the perfect summary is that relay in Fukuoka. That is how I’d like to be remembered – as the guy who was just a good teammate. I know I’m never going to be the guy that’s walking away with the six Olympic gold medals or anything like that, but I think if I can contribute as much as I can to the team, and, you know, especially on those relays.

“I love being in the relays. I always feel great pride being able to stand up there next to all the guys. I feel, probably, a little bit of pressure getting up there and knowing that I have to compete for them, but I think if – at the end of the day – everyone can be like ‘oh you know he always put his best forward for Australia’ that’s a really good legacy that I’d like to leave.”

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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