Time and again they braved the dark labyrinth of a flooded Thai cave. Now two modest heroes have been nudged into the spotlight as jointly named Australians of the Year.
South Australian anaesthetist Richard ‘Harry’ Harris and retired Perth vet Craig Challen were named as the twin recipients of the award at an emotional ceremony in Canberra on Friday night.
Humble to a fault, the self-effacing heroes declined to dwell on the key roles they played in beating the odds and extracting 12 boys and their soccer coach from the treacherous Tham Luang caves.
The pair were “uneasy” about the recognition, Dr Harris said while attempting to direct attention from themselves by acknowledging the rescue’s massive team effort.
And they also put in a sportsmanlike good word for the other finalists.
The other nominees had “worked their whole lives” for the causes closest to their hearts, he said.
And while these men had worked only a few days on the rescue effort, their lifetime of training prepared them for that crucial opportunity to save lives.
A congratulatory video message from the Thai boys – the intrepid twosome’s first contact with the children since the July 2018 rescue – saw their eyes moisten with tears.
“Well, that speaks to everything to what we’ve been involved with,” Dr Harris said.
“It’s actually the first communication we have had with the kids, so that’s pretty special, thank you.”
Dr Challen described the shared award as “a great honour … beyond my wildest expectations”.
But he didn’t dwell on his own conspicuous bravery, instead seizing the moment to exhort others to aim high and confront life’s challenges and opportunities.
The Thai rescue mission should be seen as a prompt for others to live life to the fullest, Dr Challen said.
While lives might not always hang in the balance, as they did in the silted murk of the Thai caverns, tackling something bigger than oneself gives meaning to life even as it expands an individual’s horizons, he told the audience at Friday’s awards ceremony.
“We could have easily just not turned up, we had lots of other things to do,” Dr Challen said.
“But it was ‘this is a once-only shot – the chance isn’t going to come again’ – and everybody has that in their own little way.”
The Australian of the Year awards will sit nicely on the mantelpiece with the pair’s other recent honours.
Last year Dr Harris and Dr Challen were awarded the Order of Australia, while Harris also received the Star of Courage, the second-highest bravery award the nation can bestow.
The runners-up for the award, who were all winners in their own states and territories, represent a diverse spectrum of individual passions and collective dedication.
Paralympian Kurt Fearnley, teenage pregnancy support program creator Bernadette Black, Detective Inspector Jon Rouse, gender equality advocate Virgina Haussegger, indigenous rights campaigner Michael Long and medico Mark Sullivan were all recognised for their efforts to make Australia and the world a better place.
Despite his fears for the boys he helped rescue, Dr Harris plans to use his Australian of the Year platform to encourage children to spend more time outdoors away from computer screens – although not perhaps by delving into the bowels of the earth without adequate preparation.
“I want kids to find their inner explorer by taking a few risks and challenging themselves, getting a few grazed knees and stubbed toes, making them more robust and confident,” he said.
“There’s nothing special about what Craig and I have done with our exploration and our diving, we’ve just sort of given it a go.
“I want to be able to inspire kids to do that.”
Other 2019 Australian of the Year award recipients:
- Kate and Tick Everett, 2019 Australia’s Local Heroes, for their dedication to honour their daughter’s memory by encouraging and developing strategies to prevent childhood bullying
- Danziel Baker, 2019 Young Australian of the Year, for achieving mainstream music success as the rapper Baker Boy, with many of his lyrics in the Yolngu Matha language
- Dr Suzanne Packer AM, 2019 Senior Australian of the Year, for her work with children who have suffered the trauma of child abuse