It’s time for you to meet Nicola Atherton. She’s a 27-year-old Sydneysider, and she’s about to become Australia’s most famous female lifeguard.
She is, after all, the newest member of Bondi Rescue – one of Australia’s most-loved TV shows, both here and abroad. And although she’s only been a lifeguard for three months, Nicola is ready to show the boys exactly how it’s done.
Nicola has plenty of experience in the water – prior to becoming a lifeguard, she was a professional surfer for 10 years, even winning the World Junior Surfing Championship at the age of 20 in 2007. She began looking for a career change and decided to apply for the lifeguard role with Waverly Council. Having grown up surfing in Bronte, she already knew plenty of the boys and knew she’d fit right in.
Nicola had to get her jet ski licence, her lifeguard certification and her first aid training. She also had to pass a rigorous fitness test. And after all that, finally, she was welcomed to the Bondi Beach time – Bondi’s fourth ever female lifeguard.
I had a chat with her to find out more about this incredible sportswoman, and also get some of the behind-the-scenes story about what it’s like to work on Bondi Rescue.
Natalia: How did you get started in surfing?
Nicola: I grew up on Bronte Road, which was a five minute walk to the beach. It was the best place in the world to grow up. I fell in love with surfing at the age of 12. It became everything to me, more than a hobby or passion, it was my life and I spent every spare second I could in the surf.
And how did you decide that you wanted to be a lifeguard?
I was just seeking change and it was my family that suggested I try out for the Waverly Lifeguards – it was the first year in ages that the council was actually accepting new applications. It was a really quick decision to move into lifeguarding, I had a lot of the ocean skills and experience required for the role and emergency response was something I’ve always been intrigued by. I really felt this was a great job and it will help me figure out what career path I want to take after surfing.
What are the other lifeguards on Bondi Rescue like – are they as nice as they seem?
The guys are really cool. They’ve actually all been really good to me, really helpful, they’ve enjoyed being able to show me the ropes and share their past experiences with me. The gender issue gets brought up quite a lot but I don’t really see it that way because I’ve known these guys for such a long time.
Was that gender divide more evident when you were competing as a professional surfer?
Yeah, definitely. I felt really inferior to my male counterparts, especially at events when male surfers would stand around and say, “Oh the surf is rubbish, let the girls go out.” It definitely made me feel like a bit of a second-class citizen. Even now, with marketing and sponsorship, if you’re not a really aesthetically pleasing package to market, you don’t get support.
So I think it’s really hard to be a young girl in surfing at the moment. Really avid, keen surfers are going down this route where they think it’s more important to have this image on Instagram where they’re always in their bikini, jumping around. You don’t have to be some goddess in a bikini to be a surfer – it’s not about that. It’s about going out with your friends and catching some waves and having fun while doing it.