A Life Spent by, and in, the Water

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

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."

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.

Michael, in fact, told his peers he was bored and ready to return to school, which was to start again soon. This is his final year at Waverley College, a private Roman Catholic school. That Michael goes to a non-government school is not unusual. According to the last census, 30 percent of eligible children attend them. They have grown more popular in recent years as parents send their children to schools with more discipline and a higher percentage of graduates attending university level.

Senior year important

This year Michael is a senior, and as he notes, "I'm a prefect, so it will be a good year. I'll get a lot of privileges."

But school is more than just a power trip. Michael says he really enjoys some of his subjects, such as music and history. Since his senior year is important in determining if he goes on to a university, Michael has decided to give up going out on Saturday nights except to birthday parties. He figures if he spends the extra time studying, it will help him get into a good school. "Not going out is only for eight months and then you get the benefit for life," he explains.

Brother Greg Holland, a counselor and teacher of religious education at Waverley, calls Michael "industrious and enthusiastic. He is someone who is willing to learn." Brother Holland expects Michael, an above-average student, to go on to a university. "I admire his energy to do many things - he is well-rounded and has a friendly and good-natured approach," says Holland.

Although the girls have already started to notice Michael, he says he has little interest in having a girlfriend. "I don't have the time, I don't have the money, and I don't have the patience," he says. There are five or six girls who are part of his social group, he says.

Although he mainly eats at fast-food restaurants during the day, Michael's mother usually cooks a balanced meal for Michael, his 11-year-old sister, and father Jaeger in the evening. His parents give Michael the pocket money he needs for food and clothing. "My mom always says 'I'd rather give you more pocket money than have you go out and get a job and give up valuable study time,' " he says.

An important part of Michael's life is music. At his home, a comfortable house in a middle-class neighborhood, he proudly displays his latest acquisition: a $1,000 classical guitar. As he plays a 16th-century piece by Luys de Narv 139>ez, he explains how he discovered "you have to understand and analyze" an artist's work, not just play the notes, to get the music to sound right.

In later life, Michael envisions himself working in business, marketing, hotel management, or journalism.

If he does not get good enough scores to get into a university, Michael could see himself involved in real estate - the same as his father. "Not getting into university is not the end of the world," he says.

Failure, however, is not part of Michael's vocabulary. "I'm confident. I see myself as the sort of guy that, when you hear about airplane crashes, and there are 250 people on board and only one survives, I'm the guy that survives," he says.

"If you work hard, you get the results," he says. That's why he is back in the pool, swimming 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) the next day.

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