Australian of the Year winners: Thai cave heroes' message to kids


Dr Richard Harris and Dr Craig Challen had some advice for parents and children after claiming the 2019 Australian of the Year award - and it's not what you would expect.

Australian of the Year, cave diver and anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris, has a surprising message for children around the world: find your “inner explorer”.

Dr Harris, along with Dr Craig Challen, claimed the joint title of Australian of Year on Friday night for their part in an international rescue effort to free 12 trapped boys and their football coach from an underwater cave. It was the first time the title had been jointly awarded to two finalists.

Longtime friends Dr Harris and Dr Challen want Australian's to make the most out of every opportunity.
Longtime friends Dr Harris and Dr Challen want Australian's to make the most out of every opportunity.

But despite the harrowing experience, which saw the longtime friends swim 4km through a narrow tunnel to free the boys after more than two weeks underground, Dr Harris said it was important to let kids “test their own limits”.

"Anyone with a measure of enthusiasm can achieve the sort of things that we've done," he said.

"I can't bear to see kids squander any of these opportunities, trapped indoors, eyes glued to a screen."

He said it was equally important for parents to “relax a little” and allow kids the room to discover the world.

Dr Challen also wants to encourage Australian’s to push the limits.

"I urge all Australians to make the most of every opportunity that presents itself and in every decision you make, ask yourself, does this help me to be the best person that I can be?" Dr Challen said.

As the country watched on, both said they were “uneasy about the recognition”.

“We are enormously humbled by this award, but we are both uneasy about this recognition, given that we were just a part of a very large team, and we’re surrounded by people who have dedicated their whole lives towards a cause and have dedicated themselves to that,” Dr Harris said.

The 2019 Australians of the Year with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the ceremony on Friday.
The 2019 Australians of the Year with Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the ceremony on Friday.

The two diving buddies had been packed and ready for a trip to the Nullarbor when they got the call from Thailand. A day after they arrived, both swam to the end of the cave to meet the boys, who Dr Harris said were “painfully thin” but in “good spirits”.

“We had virtually no chance at all of it being 100% success rate,” Dr Challen said on Saturday morning.

“Even now, I can barely believe it worked out as it did. But we expected some, if not all of them, to be casualties during the process.”

On the day of the rescue, Dr Harris, as a medical doctor with more than 30 years diving experience joined the boys in the cave to assess their health and administer anaesthetic so they were able to be evacuated.

The Thai boys during their cave ordeal.
The Thai boys during their cave ordeal.

Once each boy had the all clear, retired vet Dr Challen took over the operation - swimming each boy, none of whom had any dive training, through the dangerous passages.

Miraculously, all 12 boys and their coach made it out alive.

“I think the world loves a bit of good news and we're very proud to be part of it,” Dr Harris said.

In a touching moment, the Wild Boars football team appeared via video at the ceremony to thank the two doctors.

“Good evening. Thank you very much Dr Harris and Craig Challen. We love you, all the best. Goodbye,” they said.

Dr Harris said it was the first time they’ve had any contact with the children after leaving Thailand.

“A lot has been said about this little adventure that we had, but the bottom line for me is that 13 families still have their sons. That wouldn’t happen if we hadn’t been there,” Dr Challen said.

“That’s what floats my boat.”

Both awardees will attend the National Flag Raising Ceremony in Canberra on Saturday morning, before travelling to Sydney to attend an Australia Day ceremony in Parramatta this afternoon.

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