History of Lifesaving Sport

Lifesaving Sport is a tradition that has been ongoing since the foundations of RLSS in 1891. From the very beginning, competition and public demonstration were used to engage swimmers and educate the public. This may well be down to our founders; among them William Henry, himself a champion swimmer who represented Great Britain in water polo at the 1900 Olympic Games, and at swimming in the 1906 Olympics Games (winning a Bronze Medal), as well as Archibald Sinclair, a well-known sportsman, and several journalists. They believed that sport could be used to combat the dreadful drowning toll of the late 1800s. 

Major events started very early in our history. In 1891 a magnificent shield, the Sunlight Challenge Shield, was presented by Lever Bros. in a national competition for the encouragement of knowledge and skills in lifesaving. It was open to teams of four from any school, club, or other organisation in the UK. Each team was examined under proper rules and regulations by competent judges, one of whom had to be a member of the medical profession. In the first year, 24 teams took part and in addition to the shield, there were sets of four gold, silver, and bronze medals. There were District and Divisional Competitions, with bronze medals for the two teams who were head of such District or Division but who failed to qualify for prizes, in the penultimate or final ties. The winners of the first event were a team from Nottingham Swimming Club. 

The Society regularly held competitions at Highgate Ponds or at the Bath Club, both in London. The value of demonstration and competition was emphasised when, in 1897, the Society organised an International Championship Gala in London’s West India Docks, commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Events included demonstrations of the Rescue and Release Drills, then taught by the Society, the Mile Amateur Championship, a Special 100-yards Scratch Race, a display of High and Fancy Diving, a 100-yards Rescue Race, the National Graceful Diving Contest, a 100-yard Open Obstacle Handicap and a water polo match. There were 13,000 spectators enjoying skilful displays by teams from America, Germany, Australia, and Sweden, as well as the UK. Such was the impact, that an invitation was offered by Sweden for the UK team to visit, which resulted in the foundation of the Swedish Life Saving Society. 

By the turn of the century, there were championships in Scotland for Schools, and for Graceful Diving, Scientific Swimming, Breaststroke and Back Stroke, all supported by generous donors of trophies and medals. In 1903, the Ladies Challenge Cup for Swimming and Life Saving was introduced on a time test principle, with Clubs submitting the results of various tests and the Cup being awarded to the team with the lowest aggregate time. 

In 1902, King Edward VII, who gave us the title ‘Royal’ became Patron and presented the Society with a magnificent silver trophy ‘The King’s Cup’ to be used for an international competition. The first running of the competition in 1903 was attended by the King and included a 400-yard swim, followed by a tow of 40 yards while dressed in swimming costume, shirt, collar, tie, trousers and boots or shoes. Again, the annual event attracted an international field of competitors. The criteria for the trophy was revised several times over the years but it is still in use today, as the premier trophy recognising outstanding contribution to the Royal Life Saving Society. 

By the 1930s, there were a variety of competitions and various trophies donated in memory of founders or key people in the development of RLSS. The Central Executive provided trophies for competitions between branches in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand as the spread of competitions throughout RLSS Members continued. 

For many years, there had been international competitions of a variety of forms. Many countries hosted their own internal Championships, as they continue to do today. 

In 1971, RLSS UK hosted a Life Saving Tetrathlon consisting of four events – Rescue by Boat over 150 metres, manikin rescue over 50 metres, throwing a competition buoy and a 200 metres utility swim, in trousers and singlet (vest). Teams from France, Spain and Great Britain took part. In 1978, RLSS UK staged the FIS World Championships sponsored by National Westminster Bank, in 1986 RLSSC hosted the World Championships ‘Rescue 86’ for WLS and in 1994, after the formal merger of WLS and FIS to form the International Life Saving Federation (ILS), RLSS UK organised the still water events for ‘Rescue 94’. 

The basis of modern RLSS Championships stemmed from the 1986 Quinquennial Conference, which expressed the view that a competition would further cement the valuable fellowship which prevails in our organisation. 

RLSS New Zealand were due to host the 1988 Asia Pacific Competition and agreed to treat that as a pilot, for a future RLSS event. 

Following that, formal rules were developed and in its centennial year, 1991, the Society hosted an international event in Coventry, England, attended by teams from Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, and Wales. Events included a variety of towing relays, surfboard rescue relays, line throw multi-rescues, a lifesaving back stroke tug of war and individual, pairs and team initiative tests; perhaps more importantly, these now form elements of the Championships we still use today. 

A second Championships was held in January 1994 at the Dandenong Oasis Aquatic Centre in Melbourne, Australia, to coincide with the RLSSA’s centenary. It was decided to link the Commonwealth Lifesaving Championships to the Society’s Quinquennial Conferences. RLSS UK hosted these in Eastbourne, 2001 and Bath, 2006. In 2009, the Alberta and Northern Territories Branch of The Lifesaving Society, Canada hosted the Championships in Edmonton. 

The logo for our Championships that we use today was developed for that event, the first time it had taken place outside the UK. 

Each event was organised by a local organising committee, but in 2009 an RLSS Sport Development Committee was formed to oversee our lifesaving sport. Committee Chairs have included Greg McClennan (Australia), Matt McFann (UK), Lorraine Wilson-Saliba (Canada), Helen Herbert (South Africa) and Anni Gardiner (Australia). 

Since 2009, the Championships have been sanctioned by and supported by the Commonwealth Games Federation, emphasising the importance of the Championships, and reflecting our recognition as a Commonwealth Accredited Organisation. 

Competitors felt that a gap of five years between events was too long, and it was decided to introduce a Championships in the intervening period. In 2011, Lifesaving South Africa hosted the event in Durban and in 2013, RLSS Australia hosted the Championships at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. 

At strategic planning sessions in 2014, it was decided we should return to the basics and use sport for the purpose of engagement and development. A revised form of event was needed which would be skills based, and more readily accessible. After a considerable period of consultation and research, the Lifeguard Challenge event was developed to run alongside the Commonwealth Lifesaving Championships. The first event under the new format took place in 2017 in Durban. The event attracted participation from 13 nations and included development opportunities for competitors and officials.