Two veterans on the life-affirming power of City2Surf

Participating in City2Surf as part of the RSL NSW team has inspired Noel Bottrell and Alexandra Torrens to get active, forge meaningful social connections, and push themselves to the limit and beyond.

By Girard Dorney

Every year, Sydney’s City2Surf attracts tens of thousands of entrants, and since 2022 RSL NSW has used the event to bolster the mental and physical wellbeing, and sense of mateship and community, of veterans and their families.

Because of its purpose and long history, RSL NSW has members who joined at very different times, in very different contexts. This is part of what makes it so important, but it’s also a challenge.

How do you foster community between generations, between ex- and current serving Defence members, between those who fought and those served in the Reserves – and how do you bring their families together?

Take Noel Bottrell, who joined Defence as part of National Service in 1956, a conscription scheme that existed at the time. He then joined a precursor to the Reserves, the Citizen Military Forces (CMF). Becoming a member of the Coledale RSL sub-Branch, however, was spurred not by his own experiences but by the damage experienced by some men he knew.

“I was absolutely appalled at the way the Vietnam veterans were treated when they came back to Australia by what I like to call a ‘noisy minority’,” he explains. “The RSL was also not above criticism; some of the old guard treated them poorly, and the DVA was also not always comforting.

“My conscience was bothering me and I couldn't let that sort of attitude continue. So I got involved in RSL NSW to see what small part I could play in righting some of those wrongs.”

Bottrell fulfilled that mission, doing what he could to advocate so that Vietnam veterans and their families were given the same respect and treatment as any other group. He was also Treasurer and Trustee of his sub-Branch, and took part in RSL NSW’s Constitution Review Committee, and has also been awarded Life Membership with RSL Australia.

Alexandra Torrens, on the other hand, joined RSL NSW about two years ago, as a member of the Hornsby RSL sub-Branch. A pharmacist by profession, she currently serves as a Health Reservist in the Air Force.

“It’s been really nice for me to go along and meet local veterans and hear their stories,” says Torrens. “I am younger than the average member of the sub-Branch, and it’s really important to me that RSL NSW continues, that older veterans are supported, and their stories aren’t forgotten.”

A man in his 80s who was part of a conscription scheme most Australians haven’t heard of, and a serving Reservist from a distant RSL sub-Branch with two daughters. When would they ever have reason to be part of the same team?

Did you know? The ages of participants range from 11 months to 87 years.

A reason to get fit

One of the successes of the RSL NSW Sport & Recreation Program has been to help get members active and create deeper connections without reinventing the wheel. While it does support new initiatives  – everything from music groups to pilates days –  it also invests in having an RSL NSW presence at established events. 

The City2Surf is a great example of this. Sub-Branches get the word out and members are encouraged to wear the same shirt, meet up beforehand, race in their preferred group, and then get together afterwards for some food.

“My husband, my two daughters and I all went along to City2Surf last year and had a really great day,” says Torrens. “It was nice to have something we could do together, meeting a lot of other veterans from all different services and ages.”

While last year RSL NSW members joined one of the last groups to run, this year they will be more split up to cater for those who want to challenge their fitness and those who want to make it more of a social event.

In 2023 Bottrell mostly walked, but in 2024 he’s hoping to get more jogging in. Now a member of the Maroubra RSL sub-Branch, City2Surf is helping him forge connections.

“It’s good for me personally, and involved me more in the sub-Branch than I otherwise would have been,” he says.

Bottrell used to run the City2Surf regularly, but had let it lapse.

Bottrell and Torrens being interviewed for TODAY ahead of ANZAC Day 2024 commemorations.

“I've always tried to keep myself fit, but getting back into the City2Surf has prompted me to improve that. I’ve been very happy with it. It has boosted my energy levels.”

Torrens walked last year’s event with her older daughter, while her younger daughter and husband made it a bit more of a race. She later tried to seek out her record from the only other time she’d run – in her university days with friends.

“Somehow I managed to find it online and last year I actually beat that time!” she says. “So I don’t know what my friends and I were doing. We must have really been dragging the chain.

“We have said as a family that we would like to beat our time from last year. So we are trying to do a bit of training.”

Did you know? In 2024, 53 per cent of the RSL NSW team will be running in City2Surf for the first time.

A way to connect

Bottrell knows just how important such events can be, especially for veterans.

“Human beings are social animals, so we need to be around people,” he says. “Veterans coming out of Defence can sometimes be a bit lost. And it has some disastrous effects. I think the socialising of people with similar backgrounds or interests as yourself can do wonders socially and mentally.”

Both he and Torrens were also keen to stress how meaningful it is about extending that sense of social connection to families. They also encourage interested people to come along, even if they might be nervous.

“People obviously didn't all know each other, but there was that real sense of camaraderie,” says Torrens. “Don’t be shy. Make that call. Because I think you’ll find you’ll be really supported by like minded people who will be really happy to get to know you.”

If you’d like to know more about the RSL NSW Sport & Recreation Program and the events it supports, check out the website.

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