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Forty years ago,Port Kembla’s Nella Keenan (nee Risi) and seven other young women became the first females in Australia to obtain their Surf Life Saving Bronze Medallions. It didn’t seem like a big deal to Nella back then, but for thousands of women today who benefitted from the inroads they made, it was a significant achievement. 

According to Nella Keenan, women’s achievements prior to 1980 in driving change and forging the way for their formal participation as active surf lifesavers, largely flew under the radar. 

Nella and a group of seven other women achieved their Bronze Medallions in the middle of winter, at a time when training to be a lifesaver took at least six weeks. Their achievement was all part of a careful plan - with much training done during the previous season.

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The first women to obtain their Bronze Medallions in 1980

Kneeling: (L – R)  Ruth Rodwell, Kim Rennix, Debbie Moore, Nella Risi 

Seated: (L – R)  Leanne Bevan, Judy Belley, Michelle Walls, Tina Morelli 

Courtesy Coffs Coast Advocate  

Under Port Kembla SLSC’s Chief Instructor, Steve Cooke, trainers Wayne and Shaun Palmer and Morgan and Grant Rogers, the women trained all the previous summer so they could be ‘game ready' when the regulations that had previously prevented them obtaining their Bronze Medallions changed.  

The Illawarra was too cold in July for a Bronze Medallion examination so the local Illawarra Board of Examiners' Secretary, Don Rogers used his contacts and organised with the Deputy Superintendent of the North Coast Branch and Life Member of Sawtell SLSC, Roy Holloway to act as Examiner for Nella and the other Port Kembla candidates. 

The Port Kembla Club, with sponsorship from local business Morton Travel, flew the women up the coast up to Coffs Harbour to sit for their examinations. All eight of the women passed the exam.

Demonstration of 1-person patient assessment 

Standing – Ruth Rodwell 

Resuscitator – Debbie Moore  

Patient - Nella Risi  

What makes the women’s achievement even more remarkable was that their exam was just six days after National Council’s new rules came into effect - allowing women full membership into surf life saving. 

Forty years later, Nella is still very much a part of beach life at Port Kembla and reflects philosophically on her achievements. 

“Given the shift in consciousness and understanding of the movement towards gender equality, I feel proud and honoured that we were part of that paradigm shift happening here in Port Kembla and the world, blazing the trail for other females to follow in our footsteps,” Nella Keenan said. 

Nella says that she experienced no negativity whatsoever from male members and that she enjoyed the whole experience. She remains a proud surf club member today. 

“The surf club taught me a lot about myself and the role of a volunteer lifesaver, as a service of good will and life skill to my community and my home beach,” Nella said. 

Importantly Nella can now reflect on her experience which she feels has helped her with her journey through life.  

“A valuable skill, experience and opportunity was given to me and many other females after me. It has given me skills that I still use today even though I do not do patrols anymore,” Nella concluded. 

Written by Dan Michael Meehan 

Friday 26 June 2020