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A Life Spent by, and in, the Water

Australian teen Michael Jaeger aims at college and career after Bondi Beach

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 1991


MICHAEL JAEGER admits he is just a little bit tired. He has been swimming thirty 50-meter sprints with only seconds to recover between. But the fatigue goes away quickly and the 16-year-old is that much closer to his goal for the Southern Hemisphere summer: "to get really fit."

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Michael's muscle-building has a purpose: He wants to make his "college" (equivalent to high school in the United States) rugby team and get in shape for the water polo season. "Usually, in the years past, over the Christmas break I might lose some of my fitness. I might put on a little weight. I might just lose the edge. This year, I've not only maintained my fitness, I've gotten fitter," says Michael.

His training, which includes weight-lifting three days a week, is important to Michael for another reason. He believes the swimming helps give him more discipline. A friend who is an Australian national swimming champion starts training at 5 a.m. every day.

"At lunch time," says Michael, "instead of just hanging out with the guys for 40 minutes, he goes up into the library and puts his head in a few books. He doesn't watch any television. It's just a matter of discipline and obviously the swimming gave that to him."

Australian beaches packed

That swimming and water sports are important to Michael is not surprising. Most of Australia's population of 17 million (including 2.4 million teens) lives along the coastal fringe. On weekends, the beaches are packed. Many of the 255 Australian surf clubs (64,000 members) compete in weekend carnivals and help patrol the beaches.

Michael learned to swim in Canberra before he was five. At age five, his parents moved to Bondi, Sydney's most famous beach, and Michael became a "Nipper" at the Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club. The years of training and competing at Sydney's surf carnivals paid off last year when Michael's team won the national championship for rescue and resuscitation.

During the summer school break, the Bondi club is the unofficial meeting spot for Michael and his "mates," who perch like gulls on the benches overlooking the beach, or sit on the club's veranda. With his red hair (he says it comes from his Viking ancestors) and freckles, Michael tries to stay out of the sun. "My feet don't touch the sand unless I'm going in the water," he says.

Terry Ryan, manager of the Bondi club, says Michael is one of the leaders of the teen surf-watchers. "One day he could be top-captain material," says Mr. Ryan. The top captain leads all the club's teams that compete in Sydney's surf carnivals. "Michael's a little bit more mature than some of the others," says Ryan.

Many of Michael's mates wear status clothing - Jag Man or Country Road. But Michael says it's "stupid" to spend a lot of money on expensive clothing. He doesn't wear "off" clothes, either: He buys the top labels at the clearance sales held twice a year.

The club teens make quick judgments. An older long-haired man becomes known as "the water rat." For months the teens have been yelling this epithet at him as he drives past in a Volkswagen bus with white elephants painted on the sides. A few weeks ago, the man stopped the van and threatened the teens with an iron bar. For the teens, the incident produced some excitement in a boring day.