Ken Wallace: The Gold Coast Olympian on a (Chef de) Mission
Nick Nichols | June 30, 2021
Three-time Olympian and former City Lifeguard, Ken Wallace, is packing his bags for his fourth Olympic Games – but for the first time ever, we won’t be packing a paddle.
Stepping out of the kayak and into the prestigious role as Australia’s Deputy Chef De Mission, Wallace will oversee the wellbeing of the Australian Olympic team alongside swimming great Susie O’Neill and Olympic fencer Evelyn Halls.
“This will be the first Olympic Games I have been to where I won’t be competing,” says Wallace, who retired from competing five years ago.
Pondering the task ahead, Wallace laughs, “It might be easier as an athlete.”
Wallace made history in 2008 as Australia’s most successful male athlete to attend the Beijing Olympics.
Upon winning gold and bronze medals in the 500 metres and 1000 metres single kayak events, Wallace became the first Australian to win medals in both Olympic forms of individual paddling at the same Games.
Later, Wallace was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) and has since gone on to compete in both the London and Rio Olympic Games and various World Championship events.
The new leadership role will draw on Wallace’s extensive experience competing on the world stage.
He will be tasked with wearing multiple hats in Tokyo, from team mentor, organiser and trouble-shooter, to making sure athletes are fed and at the starting line.
“It’s a position of responsibility and, of course, I was very honoured to be chosen. Right now, it’s about whatever the athletes need and whatever the coaches need to be the best they can be at the Games,” says Wallace.
“I’ll be helping with anything from making sure the athletes are fed, right up to making sure they are at the start line. But it’s also a leadership role, where I can hopefully inspire athletes as well, because I have been there and done it before.”
A Games like no other
The global pandemic has added another layer of responsibility that Wallace says he is ready to handle.
“Everything around the event itself will be very different with testing and safety protocols that the Japanese and the International Olympic Committee have put in place. The Australian Olympic Committee also has its own protocols to ensure the safety of our athletes, coaches and support staff; that’s our number-one priority,” says Wallace.
“It will be a unique Games, but the message to the athletes and the coaches is that the event hasn’t changed. Our athletes are there to do a job and perform as best they can. If that results in medals, that’s sensational.
“To some extent, these are the best planned Games ever, but outside of that there are a lot of distractions. Essentially that is part of my job to ensure the athletes aren’t distracted. It’s just great to talk to them and try to alleviate any concerns they have.”
Coast a launchpad for sporting success
Wallace moved to the Gold Coast 1994, and first picked up a paddle at the age of 10.
“The reason we moved to the Gold Coast was that my sister, Frances, was a really good swimmer and we relocated here to be trained by Laurie Lawrence at Palm Beach,” says Wallace.
“We only planned to come here for one year, but we never left. Once we got to the coast, the opportunities kept us here.
“I started with Nippers at Tallebudgera Surf Club for a year and then moved to Tugun Surf Life Saving Club, where I’ve been ever since.”
Like his older sister, Wallace was also a good swimmer, but his love of surf lifesaving saw him gravitate towards competing in Ironman events. Ironically, surf-ski paddling was the weakest leg of his performance.
“I raced in the Nutri-Grain series for a couple of years and the only reason I started paddling a kayak was to help my surf-ski paddling in Ironman racing,” explains Wallace.
“In fact, my first ever strokes in a kayak were at Currumbin Creek which then put me on a pathway to the Olympic Games and an Olympic gold medal. The saying that you play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses very much came into play then.”
A Lifeguard with a legacy
For almost 20 years, Ken Wallace was able to combine work and training on the beach as a professional lifeguard for the City of Gold Coast.
“I spent my time training early in the morning and then lifeguarding during the day. What I loved about the job was that you would never see people unhappy at the beach. In my work I surrounded myself with smiling faces and people having fun. I loved the job, and still do, although I miss it now,” recalls Wallace.
Last year, the triple Olympian was appointed canoe sprint head coach at the Queensland Academy of Sport, bringing to the squad a wealth of experience in international competition.
For Wallace, there’s no place like the Gold Coast for elite training, regardless of the sport.
“My coach Jimmy Owens and I worked very hard, training at Currumbin Creek, the canals at Palm Beach and going up and down the canals at Mermaid Waters and Varsity. In some regard, we’ve paddled a lot of the waterways on the Gold Coast,” says Wallace.
“This is the best place anywhere for sport, not just for paddling, but multiple sports across the city. It’s a very active, fit and healthy city, and the Commonwealth Games showed that we are a world-class sporting city.”
The Gold Coast: where community spirit runs deep
Wallace is confident the Tokyo Games will be a success, even though family and friends won’t be there to cheer on the athletes.
“Japanese people are very welcoming and friendly. It’s nice to have your friends and family in the grandstand, but the people that you’re racing for will be sitting down in front of the TV at home,” says Wallace.
“That’s the one thing that I didn’t realise after my first Olympic Games – the ripple effect that winning an Olympic medal has, especially here on the Gold Coast.”
“The Gold Coast is a real community, and when I came home from the Beijing Olympics, people I didn’t know all of a sudden had this connection to me because I was a Gold Coast athlete. That to me was probably the biggest eye opener. Because I was a Gold Coaster, they made me feel like I was part of the family and part of the community.”
“I’ve spent months and months overseas, year in and year out, and every time I come home, I always feel welcome. Once I feel the salt air and that bit of humidity, I know I’m home.”
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