Traumatically battered, attacked and even raped as a child, endurance athlete Damien Rider couldn’t know he would defy the odds so emphatically with a paddle from the Gold Coast to Sydney to raise awareness for child abuse after being on the brink of suicide.
It was during this 800 kilometre courageous journey in shark infested, hostile and unpredictable waters that the 43-year-old Australian would paddle head-on into his deepest demons and most vulnerable state, knowing that in order to help others, he finally had to help himself.
“It was physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the lot, and neglect. It was very confusing being a young kid with no-one to turn to and just something that no-one should experience basically,” Damien says.
One memory Damien recalls is being just six-year-old and watching his abuser beat up 6 cops fully armed with batons and guns out the front of their cream coloured North Glenelg unit in Adelaide. He stood in confused silence unable to comprehend what was going on in front of him. The fully armed cops were now ‘destroyed’. They left without their assailant.
Damien watched his abuser – his mother’s boyfriend – casually walk back inside their home.
“I’m pretty lucky I’m here I guess. There was a lot of domestic violence going on in the house. There was holes in the walls, blood splatters all over the house and someone would be in hospital.
“I’d go to bed, hear him laughing and then all of a sudden something smashed or was getting smashed. I’d hear screams and a thump. It was something that no one should experience,” Damien says candidly.
Although Damien banged on neighbours doors asking for help, no one would answer. They didn’t want to get involved and kept their doors shut. Damien, along with his 8 year-old brother and 10 year-old sister, were alone in their plight to survive their circumstances.
“My mother would be unrecognisable sitting at the breakfast table not knowing who she was, or she’d be shaking and acting as if nothing happened, making my lunch for school.
“She tried to provide but she didn’t have the life skills because she’d grown up abused by my Grandma who also was violent towards me. My mother was stuck in that cycle like a lot of people are and was desensitised to it. It was her normal and she always lived in fear for her life,” Damien reveals.
His mother had not had a loving mother or father, she sadly lacked those heartfelt connections and didn’t know how to show love. She wasn’t equipped to deal with the situation.
Damien was a confused kid with no-one to turn to so kept himself busy, out of the house as much as possible, away from the hands of his abuser. He’d seek refuge by sleeping on the beach and under jetty’s to escape.
“I was trying to be a loving kid but I didn’t know what love was. I was trying to be compassionate because I could see what was going on. I wanted someone to reach out and give me a hug.
“At the time no-one wanted to help us because they were all scared of him,” Damien says.
He remembers the abuse as fairly consistent – a terrifying day-in day-out pattern that went on for about two years.
“It’s not like I could talk to my brother, he was pretty out of control too. We’d get flogged at home and then he’d beat me up. He was the tough kid of the neighbourhood and school so he’d beat up all these kids and because they couldn’t do anything to him, they’d beat me up. So I was getting it from everywhere,” he explains.
His family was horrifically dysfunctional, the neighbourhood – unresponsive, school ignored the source of his bruises and law enforcement had failed. Damien and his two older siblings, brother and sister, remained neglected and vulnerable throughout their childhood. A glaring illustration of kids slipping through gaps in a community construct supposed to protect them.
Damien started skateboarding as a release. Skate and ride all day and all night. Just skate and ride.
“Up until recent years I’ve lived most of my life thinking today was going to be my last,” he says frankly.ba
When he was 22-years-old his mother revealed in a letter that his father was not the same as his brothers and sisters. This confusing news prompted a loss of identity and ‘who am I and where do I come from?’
Despite turning to drugs and alcohol to ease his pain it wasn’t until Damien suffered a mild heart attack that he got the wake up call he needed to break free from his past.
Damien recalls, “I was surfing on the coast and I knew then I had more self worth, I could do more and I had a lot more to give,” he says.
He realised it’s not the end of the world when something bad happens, and that his challenges gave him the ability to adapt and move forward towards a better life. He legally changed his surname to Rider to reflect who he is and what he does – he’s a rider.
Now, it was time to make a difference.
He wanted to make a big noise and raise awareness about the issue of child abuse. He wanted something to aim for and researched paddling world records, sold his car and trained for eight months full-time to be able to paddle from the Gold Coast to Bondi.
Already founder of the Rider Foundation he created the first Paddle Against Childhood Abuse (PACA) event.
He would be paddling over shark breeding grounds the whole way – it became known post paddle that 2015 was the most shark infested summer on record.
Paddling unsupported and with no communications, he and his mates worked out he’d have around a 20 per cent chance of success.
“I had a lot to deal with in the water by myself, sharks hitting me, dehydration, starvation. The ocean is pretty unforgiving and I was in some pretty gnarly situations. I had to deal with what was going on in the moment. Then I had to break it down, keep looking ahead and keep moving forward. It was the only way I could do it.
“The ocean taught me to put challenges I’d overcome behind me, forget about it, so I could keep going forward because I knew there would be something else to deal with around the corner. No-one thought I would reach Bondi,” he says.
After the paddle was done he realised that his mindset had changed.
“On the ocean I was stuck out in the elements with no-one else around – I had to deal with it all myself.
“As a lot of emotions from the past started coming up I realized I’d been through a lot, and had experienced a lot in life that I could teach other people to get beyond their abusive past,” he says.
As Damien paddled out from Bondi he knew that he was willing to die for what he believed in. After five days doing the same tasks with the same goal, paddling in the same direction, his mindset had changed – now he was determined to live for what he believed in.
By the time the paddle was completed he’d gone from thinking every day would be his last to feeling like he’d live for another 100 years.
He explains, “I’d lived a certain way for so long and after 17 days in the water I was different, I was a new person and there was no turning back. I spent the next eight months figuring out what the hell happened out there because I just wanted to bottle that and share what I felt with other people.”
It was an awesome Sunday on Sydney harbour, awash with sailing craft and speed boats, on Damien’s final day paddling headed for Bondi. He’d just smashed out 32 km and was powering along, nearly across the harbour, when he saw a fishing charter coming towards him with a flock of mutton birds bombing the water behind it.
The vignette was completed by old mate aboard gutting and chucking fish off the back of the boat which had attracted about ten little sharks trailing their rig.
“I’m looking at these sharks around eight feet away thinking, are you serious right now? I’ve got 2 km to go and I’m about to be eaten by a shark! This isn’t right. I thought, keep going, keep going, keep doing it mate. My shoulders were burning and I couldn’t move my arms anymore, it was hectic!
“I kept paddling and then once I got into Bondi I got swept into the bay and then I just sat out there for a bit. There was people jumping off the rock and the beach was jam packed. I thought, you guys have probably just driven down here today and have no idea what I’ve been through to get here.
“I sat for a minute and thought… that’s cool. It doesn’t matter how any of us got here. All of us wanted to be here today and we are. I had my little muesli bar and paddled in,” he finishes.
Somewhere out on the ocean Damien Rider found his purpose – and the saving grace and simplicity of breath and peace. The paddle reset his internal compass and gave him a renewed resilience and fortitude to power him forward.
Damien created the first Child Abuse Awareness Week in Australia and Thailand and was a featured baton bearer in the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
His book, ‘One breath meditation’, combines mediation techniques to bring people back to breath and connection. Damien has produced two documentaries about his journey, and is currently working on a television series. He remains motivated to help and inspire others who’ve suffered childhood trauma or abuse through media campaigns, education programs, school support projects and community health classes.
Damien Rider’s mantra is… accept, adapt, breath and keep moving forward.
Helplines and services for the protection of children against child abuse
- If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call Police on 000
- Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline 13 11 14
- Or, ChildSafe Ltd: Improving wellbeing and safety of children – Childsafe.org.au p: +61 431 715 132 or [email protected]
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