Australia

Our heroes: Thai cave divers claim historic joint Australian of the Year award

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Diving doctors, a pediatrician working to eliminate child abuse, a 22-year-old Indigenous superstar and grieving parents fighting for a kinder world - here are your 2019 Australians of the Year.

It was the news story that captured global headlines, and now, our country’s Thai cave heroes have been named the 2019 Australians of the year - the first time the award has ever been given jointly to two people.

Meanwhile, a pediatrician fighting to eliminate child abuse, an Indigenous performer and two parents using the loss of their daughter to stop bullying have been honoured in the local heroes, senior and young person categories.

Australia's Thai cave heroes have been named 2019 Australians of the Year.
Australia's Thai cave heroes have been named 2019 Australians of the Year.
AAP

Dr Craig Challen, from Western Australia, and Dr Richard Harris, from South Australia, were selected as joint Australian of the Year for their heroic efforts to free 12 boys and their football coach after they became trapped in a flooded cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in July 2018.

Dr Harris said he feels uncomfortable with being chosen as the co-winner.

"We are both quite uneasy about this recognition. We were both one part of a team," he said.

Dr Challen got teary-eyed when a video of congratulations from the Thai cave boys was played at the award ceremony. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with winners 2019 Australians of the Year Dr Richard Harris and Craig Challen at the 2019 Australian of the Year Awards.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison with winners 2019 Australians of the Year Dr Richard Harris and Craig Challen at the 2019 Australian of the Year Awards.
AAP
"Well, you know, a lot has been said about this little adventure that we had, but I think the bottom line for me is that there are 13 families that have still got their sons, that wouldn't have if we hadn't been there as part of that group, so that's what floats my boat!"

Working as part of the international rescue team, which included a total of 20 Australians, the long-time friends were crucial in the eventual rescue of the boys after more than two weeks underground.

As a medical doctor with 30 years experience as a diver, Dr Harris was tasked with swimming 4km through the narrow cave to reach the boys, assessing their health and administering anaesthetic so they were able to be evacuated.

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.

In a tragic twist, Dr Harris’ father died shortly after he exited the cave after the successful rescue

The doctor was the last person out of the cave.

Long-time friends Richard Harris and Craig Challen have been awarded the first ever joint Australian of the Year award.
Long-time friends Richard Harris and Craig Challen have been awarded the first ever joint Australian of the Year award.
AAP

Chair of the National Australia Day council Danielle Roche OAM said the actions of Dr Harris and Dr Challen exemplified “the Australian spirit”.

“Richard Harris and Craig Challen led a heroic rescue under the spotlight of the world’s media. They placed the safety of others above their own and inspired hope when hope seemed lost,” she said.

“Their selflessness, courage and willingness to help others in a time of need typifies the Australian spirit."

The pair have never sought the spotlight, however. 

"We're just two ordinary blokes who have an unusual hobby that not many people have heard of and we were lucky to be there," Dr Challen said in June last year. 

The doctors were presented with the historic joint award by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a ceremony in Canberra this evening. Both had already been awarded the Star of Courage for their part in the dramatic rescue.

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The Australian of the Year finalists had previously been awarded Australian of the Year in their home state.

Earlier in the evening, 22-year-old Indigenous rapper, musician and dancer Danzal Baker, who raps under the name Baker Boy, was named the 2019 Young Australian of the Year after he became the first artist to achieve mainstream success while performing in the Yolngu Matha language.

The talented performer hails from the Milingimbi community in north-east Arnhem Land.

“Danzal Baker is an inspirational young Australian, an outstanding musical talent and dedicated advocate for Indigenous Australian culture,” Ms Roche said.

Baker Boy
Danzal Baker, an Indignous rapper who performs as Baker Boy, has been named Young Australian of the Year.
NITV News
"Through his music, he inspires young Indigenous Australians to embrace their heritage while sharing his own cultural stories with a wider audience here in Australia, and around the world”.

Already reaching great heights despite his age, Mr Baker has already taken home a slew of awards for his music, toured as English rapper Dizzee Rascal’s support act and has signed a record deal with Select Music.

The performer told SBS News last year that he hopes his music will provide inspiration to children living in remote Indigenous communities. "Learn more language and also learn more in school,” he said.

“Because knowledge is power.”

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Dr Sue Packer was also named 2019 Senior Australian of the Year. For more than 40 years she has been pushing for the rights of children in Australia’s healthcare system. Not only has she treated abuse victims, but she has also worked to eliminate it through the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

Through this work, Ms Roche said she had “improved the lives of untold children”.

The 2019 Senior Australian of the Year has been announced as Dr Sue Packer.
The 2019 Senior Australian of the Year has been announced as Dr Sue Packer.
AAP
"Suzanne Packer is a lifetime advocate for the health, safety and rights of all children. Her dedication to protecting young lives has brought about practical change in treating children,” she said. 

The Local Hero award aims to acknowledge work done by people in their local community and the 2019 awardees, Kate and Tick Everett, have worked tirelessly on a volunteer basis to improve the lives of children in rural and regional Australia. 

In January 2018, the Everett’s daughter Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett, tragically died after suffering extensive bullying - since then, the Northern Territory parents have delivered community education on the effects of bullying and how it can be combated through their organisation Dolly’s Dream.

“Kate and Tick Everett endured heartbreak and put their own grief aside to drive cultural change, prevent bullying and ensure that other children and parents never have to suffer as their family has,” said Ms Roche.

Kate and Tick Everett are working to educate their community about the effects of bullying.
Kate and Tick Everett are working to educate their community about the effects of bullying.
AAP

All recipients will attend Australia Day events throughout Canberra and Sydney on Saturday.

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