Shellharbour rock pool part of Tony's life

Tony Speelman swimming laps in Shellharbour rock pool. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Tony Speelman swimming laps in Shellharbour rock pool. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

MERCURY SERIES - Saltwater Sanctuaries

Tony Speelman has been to war, raised a family, moved away from the Illawarra and returned. But whatever life threw at him, the waters of the Shellharbour rock pool have been a constant to which he always could, and always did, come back.

He did his first lap at nine years old - 56 years ago - when he, his parents and nine siblings moved to Shellharbour.

He would chaperone his five younger brothers on frequent forays into the pool and, at the age of 10, would wander down every morning at six o'clock to do laps, repeating the ritual after school.

"When I was a kid, you couldn't get me out of that pool with a crowbar," Mr Speelman, now 65, of Mount Warrigal, said.

"I spent every day that I possibly could down there."

Tony Speelman has been going to Shellharbour’s rock pool on and off for 56 years. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Tony Speelman has been going to Shellharbour’s rock pool on and off for 56 years. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Construction of the pool began in the mid 1890s and by 1895 it was in use, with a system of flags introduced to show which gender could bathe at which times.

Ladies were allocated two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon (between 3pm and 5pm), and men were permitted before 7am or after 5pm.

Over the decades, the baths underwent several changes, including an expansion (to 45 metres by 15 metres) and the addition of a pump that would empty the baths and clear them of seaweed, in the late 1930s.

Mr Speelman remembers climbing up the pump's two metre-high housing and jumping in with the gush of water.

He liked to grab a rock and sit on the pool floor, seeing how long he could hold his breath.

One Christmas, when a little girl's inflatable ball was blown outside the pool's confines, he frightened himself going into the open water to retrieve it, returning triumphant only to find the girl gone.

Mr Speelman joined the Army in solidarity with an older brother who was conscripted, and went to Vietnam in 1969.

Returning to Australia the following year, the rock pool was one of the first places he visited.

"It's part of my youth; part of my memories and how I grew up," Mr Speelman said.

The pool was upgraded in 1994 and renamed to honour Shellharbour's Beverley Whitfield - then a 40-year-old former Olympic swimmer and record holder, who won gold and bronze medals in breaststroke events at the 1972 Munich Games, three golds at the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and two silvers at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. She died two years after the pool took on her name.

Mr Speelman fell out of the habit of swimming laps after his boyhood, but has found himself repeating his old routine since he fell ill in 1995 and his doctor encouraged physical activity.

"I went back into the pool," Mr Speelman said. "The same pool."

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