Beach buddies
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2020
The Albatross Nippers are flying high. Lizzie Wilson meets a team of junior surf lifesavers with special needs who are as fearless and resilient as their namesake.
Lizzie Wilson

At just past 8am on a Saturday morning at Nobbys Beach Surf Club on Queensland’s Gold Coast, something very special is about to happen. Dozens of mums and dads loaded up like packhorses trudge across blistering hot sand to get as close to the water’s edge as possible. They are the proud parents of the pint-sized heroes we know as nippers who, every weekend between September and March, eagerly take to our beaches to learn about surf safety.

To the northern end of the flags, one gutsy group of youngsters has gathered. Smeared in sunscreen and decked out in brilliant orange rashies, the flock of 30 young warriors takes off in full formation. This is the magnificent Albatross Nippers, a select group of youngsters who participate in a unique program that gives children with special needs an opportunity to be included in mainstream surf lifesaving.

In the pack there’s one young man who can’t help but stand out. He’s 13-year-old Marcus Hay and he has Down syndrome, but that’s not up for discussion. The pint-sized teen with a smile that would knock the socks off the most hardened of souls has his eyes firmly fixed on the ocean where he knows he can find his happy place.

“See out there where there’s a break – that’s where I feel like Superman! I’m more confident than some of the other kids so I like to help them get better every week so they keep coming back for more,” Marcus tells The Weekly crew spending the morning with this special group of youngsters.

“I’ve been an Albatross for nearly five years and when I grow up I want to become one of the volunteers.

“My dad [Warwick] and mum [Carla] and my little sister Liana tell me how proud they are of me. I love to win, but I also want my mates to do well – that way we can all be winners,” he says, before taking off down the beach to help a couple of buddies who’ve taken a fall.

Watching on, it’s hard not to feel buoyed by the spirit of the Albatross Nippers and their boundless passion and sheer determination. They have a range of disabilities including cerebral palsy, autism, Asperger’s syndrome and muscular dystrophy, but ask any one of them if they feel ‘different’ from the mainstream kids down the beach, and the response would be a resounding no.

Founder and creator of the Albatross movement is local Gold Coast physiotherapist and veteran surf coach Nick Marshall who has been involved in surf lifesaving since he was a nipper back in the 1980s. The father of two little girls, Ella, seven, and Imogen, four, could see a gaping hole in the system and decided to do something about it.

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