Curlewis, 84, a district court judge for 22 years, knighted for community
service, spent part of his early life riding surfboards while standing on his
head. He was president of the Surf Life Saving Association from 1933 to '75,
except for the war years. And even the 3� years he spent as a prisoner of war
didn't diminish his passion. One night, after another day of slave labor in
Changi, Malaya, he slipped through the darkness to the Japanese guardhouse,
stole a rope and a pair of khaki shorts, and then had another POW convert the
shorts into a thick stomach belt. The next day, while some sunken-chested
Australian prisoners were collecting salt water from the sea for boiling rice,
Curlewis gathered a group around him. He didn't show them how they might
escape. He showed them how to perform a reel rescue.
changed—and everything has. On a warm evening last November, thousands of
people line the streets of Coolangatta, gawking at the Cadillac and Rolls-Royce
motorcade of celebrities that purrs toward the town's swankest movie theater.
From one car steps a bronze-skinned, blond, blue-eyed, tuxedoed Adonis with a
beautiful blonde affixed to his arm. He strides through an aisle of women
wearing stunning gold bathing suits and strained sequined dresses, while a band
blares and a young girl wearing a long white gown strews a carpet of flower
petals at his feet. Representatives of the press, resembling 1940s movie
caricatures of themselves, leap in his path and encircle him, snapping pictures
"How 'bout a
little peck on the cheek, mate?" requests a photographer. Grant Kenny, 21,
the Ironman of all Australia, plants a kiss on 1984 Olympic swimmer Lisa Curry,
just for the boys, and then walks inside to watch himself in the world premiere
of the movie The Coolangatta Gold.
Kenny," says Mick Porra, four-time national surfboard paddling champion,
"is what every father in Australia wants his son to be, the one any girl in
Australia would do anything to jump into bed with. He's fitness and toughness
personified, the number one sporting personality in Australia."
In 1966, Hayden
Kenny won the first national Ironman championship held in Australia. Fourteen
years later, his 16-year-old son Grant did an extraordinary thing. He won the
Junior Ironman title, establishing himself as the best combination ski
paddler-swimmer-runner-surfboard-paddler in Australia under the age of 18.
Then, with 15 minutes' rest, he dashed back into the sea and won the national
Senior Ironman championship. No one had ever achieved that double—or even
considered it—and the news caused furor across Australia.
Grant went on to
win the Senior Iron-man title an unprecedented four straight years, missing a
chance at a fifth in 1984 when he pulled out with an infected foot. The Kellogg
people splashed him on TV commercials and on their Australian Nutri-Grain
boxes. A national TV network signed him to host a sports program and a game
show. The makers of The Coolangatta Gold, a clich�d but visually riveting movie
about two sons trying to win their father's affection by defeating Kenny in a
43-kilometer Ironman event, signed Grant to play himself. An insurance company
hired him to promote its new Lifesaver policy. A clothing company signed him to
promote his own line of casual wear. He also won an Olympic bronze medal in the
1,000-meter double kayak in Los Angeles. Kenny had become the all-Australian
boy. He had fallen in love with Curry, and every little rumor about the couple,
every little peck, became a hot flash for the tabloids.
Suddenly, the surf
lifesaving movement had a personality around which to coalesce. Sponsors lined
up; revenues from the government leaped to this year's record $A905,000. The
image of the surf lifesaver had become that of the model modern man. Kenny
didn't smoke; he didn't drink. He was kind, honest and articulate, piloted
airplanes and knew karate. And, most important in a society that harbors utter
disdain for self-centered celebrities, he was humble. "I try to tell people
that Ironman is the name of a 10-minute event, not of me," says Grant, who
still lives with his parents. "I'm not obsessed by it all. I'll be
competing in the surf well after my peak, because it's fun. Why give up
something I like to preserve a reputation?"
The night before
Hayden Kenny won the first Ironman, he slept in the back of his station wagon.
The Aussies had known no such event before that year, plagiarizing the idea,
ironically, from American competitive lifeguards during a U.S. tour in which
Hayden had participated the year before. "It didn't have the macho
connotation then that it has now," he says.
In 1963 Hayden
established his family in a resort town called Alexandra Headland, so close to
the beach that Grant once gazed from the front porch, saw a man drowning and
raced to save him. There Hayden began what became a thriving surf-craft
business, and started training Grant and a younger son, Martin, 16, who has won
some local Cadet (13-to 15-year-old) Ironman events. Talk of a family dynasty
is spreading. "I'll try to win a national Ironman," Martin says,
"but I won't go for the double. It'll never be done again. Grant's a
The freak is the
first man to make money from surf lifesaving, a sport that has historically
drained thousands of dollars a year in traveling, training and equipment
expenses from its faithful. In Grant's wake, the entire approach to his sport
has undergone a revolution. Iron-men around Australia began going to bed at 8
p.m., arising at 5 a.m., training for two hours, gulping breakfast in the car
on the way to work, falling asleep on their desks at midday and then returning
home at five to train for another 2� hours. They added coaches, lost lovers and
ingested protein drinks and megavitamins.