Cycling photographer Mark Gunter, and one of my closest friends, passed away on Sunday night, aged 41.
I went on his first overseas cycling assignment with him, at the 2004 Tour de Langkawi, where we were both working for Cyclingnews. Having first worked together at that year's Tour Down Under, Malaysia provided the setting for our rather unique bond (unsurprising, given we went from virtual strangers to room-mates for almost two weeks), and after the work was done and we swapped stories and shared a few beers (boy, could he glug an ale!), we soon became good friends.
"He was as good as Watson, Sunada, De Waele and Bettini (sometimes, better), and when he turned up to races they were also at, the respect was there."
He displayed the same energy there as he did eleven years later, at this year's Tour Down Under, which, sadly, would turn out to be his last. He loved that race.
Not just a zest for photography and for cycling, but 'Gunt', as I liked to call him, had an irrepressible zest for life.
For a freelance sports photographer, as it is for the scribe, one's financial situation is invariably tenuous. Yet Mark rarely complained (until he met his far more business-savvy wife, Leeanne Gatien, that is!). He knew he should have got more for what he did, and if they're honest, so did most of those who employed him - but he was simply happy doing something he always felt compelled to do: take photos.
Perhaps I am biased in this regard, almost certainly I am, but in cycling at least, he was one of the best. In my mind, he was as good as Watson, Sunada, De Waele and Bettini (sometimes, better), and when he turned up to races they were also at, the respect was there.
He often sought a different angle; even when others would try and replicate his genius by standing in the same spot, often with the same camera and the same settings, they wouldn't get close to what he could do behind the lens.
That he temporarily gave up his metier to move to New York in April this year, where Leeanne began a new job in the Big Apple while he looked after Lucas, their handsome little man, not yet two years young, shows you how selfless he was, and how much Leeanne and Lucas meant to him.
Their plan, he told me, was to spend one year in New York, two in London, then come back to Australia.
It was just a few months into this next adventure that Mark began to feel without energy, and, inexplicably at the time, started to lose weight.
In May, I happened to be in New York with my partner. Upon seeing him the first time since he left, I remarked how lean he looked.
What are you doing, I asked? You look like a Tour de France rider!
"Oh, just going for a short run each day in Central Park, three K or so. And a ride on the weekends, no more than two hours. Nothing major."
Lean as he was, Mark was still looking healthy and happy, and exercising daily.
The first time I saw him, we went for a walk to Central Park, where we checked out the Lennon Memorial and chewed the fat. Sure you're OK?
He appeared to hesitate. "Yeah... If I get to 80 (kilograms) I'll go see a doctor," he told me before I left to travel the Route 66, which is when his weight loss (he was previously 93 kilos, if I recall correctly) and malaise insidiously began to accelerate. Our final day together in NYC was spent at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum with our respective partners, followed by tapas and margaritas later that evening at a restaurant in SoHo.
Look after yourselves, I said to he and Leeanne before they hopped in a yellow cab bound for their Upper West Side digs, more as a throwaway line than a hint for Gunt to go see someone, pronto.
Mark also complained of heartburn, but not wanting to be a bother, as was his style, he did not see a doctor till July, where, after a series of tests, the worst-case diagnosis was confirmed: Stage 4 oesophageal cancer. Inoperable.
An immediate return to Sydney followed, where Leeanne grew up on the Northern Beaches, and where they lived before moving to New York.
What does one do when faced with such a daunting proposition? "We're going to smash it," he told me, the first time I came to visit. Leeanne said the same, though didn't sound quite as convincing. I didn't reply. Who was I to dampen their spirits?
Far-fetched as it sounded (I can't help but be a pragmatist), I admired their optimisim in the face of what could only be described as unrelenting adversity.
Together with my cycling colleague and friend Al Hinds, in September we shared Chinese dumplings and a beer with him. He really liked that. And as late as the start of this month, Gunt was churning out 3,500 steps a day on his Fitbit.
Could he really smash it?
A sliver of hope. That's all you need, isn't it? Or is it?
The second weekend in November wasn't a good one for Mark, unfortunately, as his health soured and cancer showed its aggressive, indiscriminate face. The past few weeks, well, I'd rather not talk about that, if you don't mind.
Mourn the loss of life for the passing of an exceptional human being, one that was taken far too early. But once the sadness has passed, let's celebrate his achievements, his verve, his character, and all that was good about Mark, and hope in you there is some of his goodness, for that's how he'd liked to be remembered.
Rest in peace, Gunt. Forever, my friend.