The Accidental Olympian

So how many people do you know are fast approaching their 40th birthday, play a sport where they wear ballet shoes and a lycra body suit, and are on the verge of making their first Olympic games in that sport after taking it up barely two years ago?

Derryn Harrison is not your average person. He’s been riding motocross since he was – as he puts it – “knee high to a grasshopper”. He rode safari bikes, an extreme version of motocross that involves riding vast outback distances at great speeds across the harshest terrain imaginable (think Paris to Dakar rally and you’ll get some idea), for ten years and numerous visits to intensive care, including one infamous accident that is Harrison’s claim to fame as it was the lead in to Channel Ten’s Sportsworld. He was once rescued by the Queensland Coast Guard after getting caught up in a cyclone while attempting to jet ski from Brisbane to Hamilton Island. And in recent years he’s taken up Formula Ford racing – a sport that his mother regards as “relatively safe” compared to what he was previously doing – and currently drives for the team that he founded and owns. Oh, and on top of that he’s an extremely successful businessman and entrepreneur who helped found Radio Rentals and currently runs his own investment and incubation company.

And the sport he’s competing in is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous of all winter Olympic sports, where competitors hurtle down a concrete and ice chasm lying horizontally on a tiny sled without brakes barely a few inches off the surface at speeds exceeding 140 kilometres per hour. It’s the sport that marked its Olympic debut at the 1964 Innsbruck Games with the death of Polish-born British Olympian Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski during a practice run, and early this year Brazilian Renato Mizoguchi suffered massive head injuries from an horrific crash during a World Cup event at Cesana Pariol in Italy. That sport is Luge.

I meet Harrison for the first time on a Thursday evening in an upmarket North Sydney bar, just down the road from Harrison’s office and not far from his Milson Point penthouse apartment with its sweeping views of Sydney Harbour and the bridge. With his shoulder length blonde hair still damp from his nightly gym session, stylish dark brown suit and pink striped open-neck shirt, my initial impression is of someone slightly younger than most of the twenty- to thirty-something’s scattered around the room. However from my sources I knew he was quite a bit closer to 40 than first impressions suggested – exactly how close depends on who you choose to believe, Harrison himself who claims to be 36, or a mutual friend and his profile on the Australian Formula Ford website that lists his year of birth as 1966 – but either way, I suggest to Harrison that perhaps it’s a little unusual for someone of his age to be attempting to make their first winter Olympics in a sport as dangerous and physically demanding as luge.

“Oh, absolutely”, says Harrison, “and totally unexpected.”

A couple of years ago Harrison and some friends in the States, all competitors in a number of different high speed sporting disciplines, were trying to find a sport they could compete against each other in without anyone having an unfair advantage.

“Car racing, downhill skiing, motor cycles… we all had an obvious advantage over one another”, explains Harrison, “and luge was just one of those things that came up, and the more I looked at it the more I thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to have a go at that.'”

And so he did. And then he came back and tried to find out if there was anyone else competing in the sport back in Australia, and found that there wasn’t – at all.

So a year ago Harrison took a team of younger male athletes to Calgary for some intensive training in the hope that one or two of them would come through and challenge for a spot at February’s Turin Winter Olympics. A few accidents later, and through either injury or shear fear there was, as he puts it, “Only one silly bugger who was willing to start off the top”.

“And that was me.”

I get a sense, though, that even if one of those younger athletes had come through, he would have been pushed all the way by Harrison.

“He’s a very ambitious person”, says former Brumbies rugby player and Harrison’s fitness trainer, Josh Birch. “Not many people can travel down the ice at the speeds he does, especially in Australia. His background in motocross and motorcar racing really helps him in terms of cornering and I think he’s got a distinct edge. I think that’s a huge reason why he’s so successful.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask Harrison if perhaps it’s more an indictment of the lack of luge athletes in Australia than any great natural ability on his part that has lead to his Olympic opportunity?

“Oh absolutely”, he agrees. “Bottom line is that I didn’t go into the sport to go to the Olympics. I went over there [to Calgary] to have a go, and thought, ‘This is a bit of fun’.”

You might be excused for thinking that this is all just a bit of a lark for a successful businessman and playboy bachelor in his mid to late thirties with a bit of money to throw about, but Harrison does appear not only driven to achieve himself, but also to help others to achieve.

After his initial failure to find any Australian luge participants, his perseverance eventually lead to him tracking down twenty-four year old Hannah Campbell-Pegg who was then in the process of changing from bobsled to luge, and who is now Australia’s sole female representative in luge. Together, as Harrison tells it, they went through the process of forming the Australian luge association from scratch, though I get the impression that much of that process and the initial funding came from Harrison himself.

“I don’t take any funding out of the association”, says Harrison. “We do get some funding from the Australian Olympic Committee, but we made a decision twelve months ago to put all the funds we raise to getting Hannah to the Olympics, given that on comparison she has a better chance of getting in than I do. She’s wanted to do it her whole life, it’s something important to her.”

What seems more important to Harrison is paving the way for someone else’s success in the sport. “He’s definitely a giver more so than a taker,” says Birch, “just one of those genuinely sincere people who put a lot back into [their] sport.”

Birch believes that even if he weren’t to qualify for the games, Harrison would be just as thrilled to have opened the path for someone like Campbell-Pegg. “He’s done everything in his power [to help her]”, claims Birch, “and that would be fantastic for him.”

Harrison’s own comments back this up.

“I could think of nothing better than identifying a couple of young athletes here and having two women and two guys in the Olympics in 2010”, enthuses Harrison. “That would give me an enormous sense of achievement.”

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Harrison has a lack of ambition to make the Torino Olympics himself. A year-long training regime that has included riding wheel sleds down the hills of Narrabeen, being strapped to the top of car roofs in order to improve aerodynamic body positioning, and two-hour return journeys for his regular five-thirty a.m. training sessions out at Baulkham Hills ice rink would suggest otherwise.

“His real motivation is the challenge to become an Olympian in such an unusual sport for Australia,” says close friend and business Colleague Louise Taylor. “It’s all about believing you can live the dream, taking the steps to make it happen, [and] seizing any opportunity along the way.”

And despite the unavoidable Jamaican bobsled “Cool Runnings” type comparisons from the European and North American competitors, who regard the idea of an Australian competing in the luge as a bit of a novelty, we actually hold a rather unique place in luge history. The first international luge race took place in 1883 in Davos, Switzerland, involving twenty-one athletes from seven countries, and it was an Australian student, Georg Robertson, along with Peter Minsch, a mailman from Switzerland, who won the four kilometre race in a time of just under nine minutes. So for a country that has never had a luge representative at the Olympics, what are the chances of Harrison ending this long drought between Australian successes and qualifying for the Turin Games?

“I am an absolute long shot”, he says, “and I’ve never made any bones about it.” But, he adds, there is a small window of opportunity, a very small window, “And so you’ve gotta put your hand up and say, ‘Christ, we’re here now let’s have a run and see how we go!'”

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