Former Ironman Dean Mercer has died aged 47 after a car crash on the Gold Coast.
GUY Leech remembers the race well. The year was 1986 and Leech was Australia’s premier ironman after winning the first two Coolangatta Gold races ever held.
On this day Leech was competing in a lifesaving event in Wollongong and as per the script, the golden boy was winning.
“I still remember it,” Leech recalled this week.
“The last leg was board and I looked over my shoulder going into the water first, and there was this little kid running in second place.
“I was like, that doesn’t look right, he has to be half my size. I couldn’t recognise him. I knew all the major players.
“I was thinking: ‘Oh, well, he won’t be there when I get through this board leg’ but he was. He finished second. He was still there. That was Dean Mercer as a 16-year-old.”
Mercer would go on to win a national ironman title within three years, and over the next few decades, carve out a career as one of the top lifesaving athletes.
Via the success in the surf of Dean and brother Darren, the name Mercer would become as much a household fixture in Australia as Leech.
So it was with sadness the nation mourned the passing of Dean Mercer this week, courtesy of a heart attack at age 47.
Mercer’s untimely death was a shock to all those who remembered the golden age of his sport, when ironmen strode across Australia’s sporting landscape like giants.
Bronzed athletes with Hollywood smiles, they sold us our breakfast cereals and competed against one another in one of the toughest mixed disciplines: run, board, swim and ski.
During the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, it’s no exaggeration to say names such as Trevor Hendy, Leech, Mercer, Craig Riddington, Guy Andrews, Phil Clayton, Dwayne Thuys, Jonathan Crowe and Ky Hurst were as well known as Aussies wearing baggy greens or passing Steedens.
Around them was a rich and deep supporting cast of gifted athletes, including Olympic kayaking gold medallist Clint Robinson and four-time champ Grant Kenny.
“If you think back, those days of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the sport was huge,” says veteran ironman Wes Berg.
“In Australia you had rugby league, cricket and ironman racing. They were the sports our country was dominant in, and all the media was around that as well. It was massive.”
The golden days of surf ironman racing saw crowds of up to 30,000 flock to beaches in Australia, New Zealand and even America for events, all with live television broadcasts.
The sport was so big two rival series ran concurrently, in what became known as the cereal wars: the Kelloggs Nutri-Grain Series and the Uncle Tobys Super Series.
After Leech won the first professional ironman events in 1984 and 1985 at Coolangatta, the SLSA set up the Kelloggs Nutri-Grain Grand Prix in 1986 but with limited prizemoney.
A breakaway group of 12 athletes got together in 1989 and, with sponsor Uncle Tobys, began a second series.
The Mercer brothers were the stars of the Nutri-Grain world and Hendy, Leech and Andrews were the superstars of Uncle Tobys.
Hendy recalls: “It was a really amazing experience. We had huge crowds at events, and outside of the sport we appeared in Home and Away. We played on stage with the Beach Boys and had private parties with Madonna.”
There was a hit film — The Coolangatta Gold.
To remind you of how big it got, in 1996 the Uncle Tobys athletes filmed an episode of Baywatch in California — the world’s biggest TV show.
Hendy, if you can believe it, only just managed to pip David Hasselhoff in a race that’s worth digging up on YouTube for laughs.
“Even when I was growing up, the events down at North Wollongong when the Mercer boys were racing at home, the crowds were rows deep,” says ex-ironman Rhys Drury, who trained with the Mercers.
“Not just a string of people either, the hill was full. It was huge. You couldn’t get a car park to get in. You had to walk for Ks just to get in. Same down at Portsea and up in Queensland, too. It was massive and those guys paved the way for the kind of huge event it all was.”
Ironman surf lifesaving captured Australia’s imagination, across both sexes.
Female stars such as Samantha O’Brien, Reen Corbett and Karla Gilbert were also big names in the respective women’s series.
The sport married Australia’s two loves — sport and the beach.
“But we also couldn’t fathom how much pain these guys could endure in their racing,” Berg says. “You’re talking about races that could last up to four hours.”
Every ironman trained hard. But Dean Mercer was widely known as the bloke who trained the hardest.
Older brother Darren was regarded as the more natural athlete and he won two Australian titles and seven Nutri-Grain series.
But Dean outworked him and outworked everyone. Three sessions a day, six days a week. And then secret sessions when others weren’t watching.
“The amount of Ks we all used to do was insane,” Drury recalls.
“It was a crazy period.”
Berg adds: “Those guys didn’t have data or scientific training programs either. They would just turn up and bore the hell out of themselves, go home, and then do it all the next day. It was go hard and go home, and that’s the way the racing was as well.”
Having just started to build dominance and some cracking rivalries in the late 1980s, the cereal wars split was frustrating for the Mercers.
They didn’t care that Hendy and the Uncle Tobys brigade enjoyed more of the celebrity limelight. They just hated they couldn’t all race.
“I know from training with them, it was frustrating,” Drury says.
“It was hard for them, when Hendy and that broke away. Especially for Deano, he was so competitive. He always wanted to race the best.
“It was hard for them to not be racing those boys week in, week out.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t an annual grudge match. Each year the date of the Australian national surf lifesaving titles was circled on everyone’s calendar; when all the ironmen came together, away from their cereal brands.
“The Mercer boys felt it was a proving ground,” Drury says. “They had something to prove. Yeah, it was definitely marked on our calendar.”
Leech says: “It was on. There was angst between the two camps and it was this whole square-up race. It will be a battle and we’ll see what comes out with what.”
Ten thousand would cram into the amphitheatre around Kurrawa Beach, Berg says.
“It was like a gladiator ring,” he says.
In 1995 when Hendy was a six-time national champion and king of the Uncle Tobys crew, and Dean Mercer was at his peak too, the two gladiators clashed in a race they still talk about.
Mercer was in the top two spot for most of the race, but Hendy stalked him and paddled onto the last wave of the day alongside his rival.
It came down to this: Hendy v Mercer, and for most of the audience, it was no contest.
“If you saw the scenario, 10 out of 10 times you’d say Trevor is going to jump off and win,” Berg says.
Mercer got off quicker and sprinted.
“You couldn’t have set it up better,” Drury recalls.
“The biggest guy in surf lifesaving, not just in stature but celebrity as well. And there’s little Deano, the littlest bloke with the biggest heart. He refused to lose, mate. It summed him up perfectly.”
With half of Hendy’s stride-length, Mercer outsprinted the big gun and won the national title. By sheer will, it seemed.
Leech says: “That just doesn’t happen.
“He did that with heart and determination. Mate, I’ll be buggered what the autopsy is going to show. It can’t have been his heart.”
Hendy adds: “The Aussie title was a David and Goliath battle but he beat me in the sprint.
“He was always the little guy who was chasing everyone else. He had the biggest heart.”
Waning sponsorship saw the Uncle Tobys series finish in 2001. Rivalry had been competitive but never nasty.
Now, past and present, the lifesaving community are grappling with Mercer’s death.
The man with the biggest ticker suffering a heart attack.
“Ironman racers are supposed to be the guys who do things other people can’t,” Leech says.
“But it’s funny. With Dean going, talking to the guys this week, something has changed for a lot of us. This has been the first time we’ve felt mortal.”
Originally published as Golden era of the Iron giants