THE DYNAMIC DAWES DUO: On and off the track
Twenty years, six Paralympics, three Games medals. Countless personal bests and race wins around the world. It’s a pretty impressive resume for any athlete and their coach. But for Merewether couple Christie and Andrew Dawes, theirs is not just a sporting success story but a tale of a husband and wife, 14 years of marriage and one beautiful five-year-old boy also among their milestones.
The friendly and unassuming couple have been at the centre of the world wheelchair track and road racing circuit for the past two decades – but if you’d asked them about the future in the mid-1990s, neither of them would have ever dreamed of being where they are today.
Christie, who grew up on the western shores of Lake Macquarie at Marmong Point, was just nine years old when her father died unexpectedly. Eleven months later her family’s world was shattered once again when she was involved in a car accident with her mother and older sister. The crash broke her spine, leaving her a paraplegic.
As part of her rehabilitation, Christie was encouraged to get fit and stay active. She later became involved with the NSW Wheelchair Sports Association, where she tried her hand at a series of different disciplines before taking up track and road racing.
At the time there was no such thing as professional coaching for wheelchair athletes – a situation that would be changed just a few years later by the man who would go on to become her mentor, friend and, further down the track, her husband.
“Sport was introduced to me as part of my rehab in the hospital,” Christie said.
“Off the back of that, I got involved with NSW Wheelchair Sports Association and tried a bunch of different sports that were just made available, which was an excellent program. I chose track and road racing.
“You used to just get coached by other athletes because there were no coaches, NSWIS, NSW Institute of Sport didn’t exist, so you just were mentored by older athletes, more experienced athletes.”
Around the same time, Christie was pursuing her interest in wheelchair racing, Andrew was returning to Australia from a stint travelling around the world.
The former PE teacher was looking for a job when a role at NSW Wheelchair Sports as a Development Officer popped up - a position that would unexpectedly alter the course of his career.
“As the development officer you’re organising activities like State Championships and Come and Try Days and I saw all these kids that were interested, but they weren’t actually training, they were just competing,” he said.
“I saw there was a link missing and … I didn’t really like organising stuff, I’d rather coach, so I started coaching (wheelchair athletes) voluntarily after work.”
While he had no specific training to rely on, Andrew used his physical education background to create programs for the athletes who came to his sessions, which he kicked off at Homebush in 1995 and continued for several years.
Regularly asked how he coaches wheelchair athletes, never having been in a chair himself, Andrew said the early days, in particular, were as much about him learning from his young charges as they were about them receiving his guidance on how to put together a proper training program.
“I often get asked that question, and it was difficult, but it wasn’t that difficult because there were no coaching resources… I didn’t feel the pressure that I didn’t know what I was doing because nobody knew what they were doing,” he said.
“And I spent the first four or five years of my coaching career learning from the athletes really. I’d give them my input in regards to how you put together a training program and how you periodise it and stuff, but as far as the technique and the position of the athletes, I basically learned just as much from them, and I still do, they know what they’re doing.”
Christie was among the first group of athletes he coached.
Still at high school at the time, she would be driven to Sydney twice a week by her mother to train with Andrew and was under his wing for around a year before she competed at her first Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.
“I was still in school, travelling to and from Sydney of a Wednesday afternoon and Saturday and I think any parent can empathise shuffling their kids from sport to sport so despite having a disability, our family was no different,” she said.
“(Before Atlanta) Drew had been my coach for a year or so and I’d go down there to train, and he’d travel up once a week to coach, we worked at it as best we could, and then I’d do sessions by myself obviously.”
After finishing school in 1998, she moved to Sydney to train full-time under Andrew in the lead-up to the 2000 Paralympics. By this time he was working as a professional coach with the Sydney Academy of Sport, with the specific aim of preparing wheelchair road and track athletes for the Sydney Games.
Among his charges was another up-and-coming athlete who he also began coaching from a distance a few years earlier – Kurt Fearnley.
Now one of Australia’s most well-known and decorated wheelchair competitors, Andrew met Kurt when he was a 15-year-old from a small country town struggling to take his love of athletics to the next level. “I started coaching Kurt not long after Chris (Christie), I think Kurt was my second athlete,” he said.
“I was working at Wheelchair Sports still, and I fielded a phone call from this school teacher, she was the PE teacher at Blayney High School, and she said I’ve got this kid in a wheelchair and he loves sport, he wants to do athletics but – ‘he keeps getting bogged’ - was her quote.
“I’d just started coaching, and I grew up in Orange, Mum and Dad lived in Orange, and it wasn’t that far (from Blayney), so I said next time I come home I’ll leave early on a Friday morning and come to the school and say hello.
“I did that and met the teacher, met Kurt, had a few words, we organised a chair, and it went from there. In those days I’d fax him a program to the post office because he lived on a farm and he’d get his program and, similar to Chris, once he finished school he moved to Sydney for 2000.”
The Sydney Paralympics provided the first glimpse of Kurt’s future potential as an athlete, with the 19-year-old picking up two silver medals in the men’s 800m T54 race and the men’s 4×100m T53/T54 relay.
And while Christie missed out on a podium finish at her home-town Games, she said the experience provided her with a valuable insight into the need for athletes to remain balanced.
“For the two years before Sydney I really just ate, slept and trained, that was it, I had no balance,” she said.
“You were just consumed by it, and you had no balance, nothing else, I really just threw myself into it and gave it everything I had, but sometimes, for me, that’s not the best way to do things. Now I’ve got more on my plate than ever before and I’m still doing PBs and medalling after six Games, with a child and handling everything.
“I think balance is something everybody needs to re-evaluate and make sure that they have … and I think you just really learn to enjoy it more."
Despite missing out on a medal, the period leading up to the Games and the years that followed did deliver gold of a different sort for Christie, and Andrew, in the form of a pair of wedding rings.
The couple began dating in 1999 and moved in together in the lead-up to the Games. In 2001 they shifted base to Newcastle and a year later they were married. Christie gave birth to the couple’s son, Charlie, in 2011.
“After Chris moved to Sydney we saw each other more frequently and it just grew from there. We moved in together in 2000 and then did the Olympics," Andrew said.
But after 2000 we came up here (Newcastle) for a while on weekends to visit Chris’ mum and agreed it would be good to get out of Sydney, so we just decided to do it.
“I had to travel to Sydney probably three times a week for the first few years because I was still coaching athletes in Sydney and then gradually I got the athletes to realise that this was a better training venue and they moved up here as well, which was good.
”Kurt was among those who made the move from Sydney to the Hunter and Christie said it was a testament to both Andrew’s skills as a coach and the fantastic training opportunities available in Newcastle.
“I think Drew has a really lovely coaching style. He’s coached a lot of athletes over the years with very different personalities and he always seems to know how to just hit the right spot with each athlete and I think that’s something that’s very hard to do.
“I’ve seen a lot of coaches over the years who have very distinct styles, and they won’t change them for anyone, and they’re very hard. You don’t want to spend one session under their guidance let alone 20 years so I think that speaks volumes.
“And the fact that athletes stay with Drew for so long, Kurt Fearnley and other athletes that come on board just stick with him because he’s very good at what he does.
“We’re also really lucky in Newcastle in that any session I want to do, track, hills, flat or fast stuff, we can get in on our driveway and just push out the front door, and within 10 or 15 minutes you’re on your training course.
“When we lived in Sydney we’d get up 4 o’clock in the morning, drive an hour to Penrith from where we lived in North Sydney, have to train, drive an hour or an hour-and-a-half back in traffic – it was hard.
“And by the time you got home you’d eat, shower, sleep and you’d have to get up and go to your next session and that would take 45 minutes to get to Homebush, maybe an hour to get home. It was hard and exhausting; this location just makes life so easy.”
In more recent times it has been the promising young Paralympian Rheed McCracken who has also made the trek from his home in Bundaberg, Queensland to Newcastle – on a more temporarily basis – to be trained by Andrew, who is also the head coach for the NSWIS and Australian wheelchair track and road squads.
“I coached him prior to London (Paralympics in 2012), but he was still at school. Again when he finished school he moved down here,” Andrew said.
“He didn’t have a lot of money either, so before the World Champs he came down for three or four months, then after the World Champs he probably spent six months here before Rio, and now he’s succeeded pretty well in Rio, he’s got a bit more funding, so he’s going to come back down.
“He’s only 19, so he’s got a big future ahead of him. Again, he’s a great kid, and that’s what keeps me motivated to keep going because I want to see how sport can develop him too.”
Rheed picked up one silver and one bronze medal in Rio in what was just his second Paralympics, adding to the pair he secured in London four years earlier.
Kurt also won two medals in Rio during his Paralympic swan song, capping off an incredible career that has seen him collect three gold medals, seven silver and three bronze from five Games.
Christie rounded things out for the Newcastle-based athletes by bringing home a silver medal in the women’s 4×400m relay (T53/54).
This was the third Paralympics in a row where she had medalled, after securing her first silver at the 2008 Beijing Games in the 4×100m T53/T54 relay before following it up with her first individual medal at the 2012 London Games (bronze in the women’s 5000m T54).
And while Rio represented her sixth time at the Paralympics, the mother-of-one said she has no plans to retire just yet. She said, as with anything in her life, her sporting future will come down to that need for balance.
“I think that’s what’ll be the main thing. If you don’t enjoy it and you’re not motivated to get out of bed and train every day - and it’s not just sport, it’s anything – if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it,” Christie said.
“Our income doesn’t depend on it, we don’t get a lot of funding or anything like that, I do it purely because I love it, it keeps me fit and healthy, it’s just good fun.
“Four years seem like a long time but really by the time you fill it in with World Champs, Commonwealth Games, the marathon majors, it really comes around again pretty quickly.”
“I’m 36, and I have competitors who are 45, so you know, I could have another two or three left in me realistically. But I’ve also got to remember my body’s got to carry me through my entire life, not just your athletic career, so you need to be mindful of that.”