Hundreds of people have turned out to farewell iron legend Dean Mercer at his boyhood stamping ground, Thirroul Beach.
On the same sands where he became a nipper, scores of boardriders paddled out in a show of respect watched over by Mercer’s parents, John and Maureen, on Saturday morning.
Many in the crowd were hit hard by Mercer’s shock death, at age 47, as he drove towards his Gold Coast home the morning of August 28.
His family later confirmed he had suffered a heart attack while returning home from his regular early morning training session with a masters group at Kurrawa Surf Club, where he was director of surf sports and a nippers coach.
He was farewelled at a funeral service on the Gold Coast on September 8, however his large Illawarra surf family needed a send-off of their own.
Leading the service on Saturday, Thirroul Surf Club president Jeff Brody recalled how the Mercer brothers’ athletic feats became the stuff of local legend.
“Being a tenacious competitor, and knowing his ability, Dean put his age up so he could compete at his very first Nutri Grain Iron Man Challenge in Adelaide,” Mr Brody told the crowd.
“Although younger, he proved is determination, coming out of the swim leg behind Guy Leech and this started 25 years of competitive spirit within the Nutri Grain series.
“The Ryans Hotel at Thirroul became the venue to celebrate Dean and Darren’s many achievements. Ryans was where we’d gather with many locals to celebrate and yes, relive every part of a race.
“Dean grew up in the shadow of Darren’s achievements and through this he gained mental toughness, physical fitness, and one hell of a will to win. He definitely was a human dynamo.”
Mr Brody read a tribute on behalf of Dean’s parents, who attended the service after driving directly from the Gold Coast, where they have been supporting Mercer’s wife Reen and their children Brayden, Joshua, Lachlan, and Rory.
“You lived the race of life in the same way that you competed – with an energy and a passion few were able to match. Like everyone else who saw you, the family was in awe of your stellar achievements. As your dad I was able to appreciate first hand just what a champion person you are.
“In an age of mixed messages from sports stars, kids of today could learn so much from your approach. To make the most of every bit of potential that you have, and to give everything of yourself, every time.”
His parents described as relentless, committed, persistent, proud and “just plain tough”.
“You were the Pharlap of ironman racing,” they said.
“But your character outside of competition was equally impressive. You raced like a machine, seemingly oblivious to pain or discomfort, yet out of the water you were caring, loving and charismatic.
“We always knew that when you were around there’d be plenty of smile sand certainly plenty of laughs, often at our expense. Perhaps your greatest quality of all was loyalty. Through years of hard work you scaled the sporting mountain and after arriving at the top you stayed there for over two decades, but Dean, you never forgot where you came from, retaining the strongest of bonds to your childhood mates and friends. Of all of your achievements, I think that’s the loyalty that makes us proudest.”
Thirroul Surf Lifesaving Club chaplain Father Ken Cafe spoke as did local poet Ross Taylor. Mercer’s sister Kylie was among those who joined the the paddle out.
The crowd was played video of the chest-busting final throes of the 1995 Australian Ironman final, in which Mercer bursts onto the sand at full pelt, holding out iron giant Trevor Hendy in a classic photo finish.
Brennan ‘Moose’ Wilton and his mother Elaine Wilton were among those who came to pay their respects.
“I forgot he was an OAM, you just think of him as a mate,” said Mr Wilton, of his old friend.
“I could get my pulse rate to 192-193 – he could get it to 222. They use the word tough, maybe too much. But the kid was tough. If you ever saw him on sand it was unbelievable. He’s got that muck-about larrikin thing. He’s always got that cheeky grin.”
Long-term family friends Geoff and Kay Greenhalgh watched the paddle-out from the sand.
They were away from home when they got the news that Mercer had died.
“My husband cried. It’s the first time I’ve seen him cry,” Mrs Greenhalgh said.
“He was so healthy. And he had four little boys.
“He’s a hero to a lot of people here, to these kids. Teaches them respect for the surf, respect for other people. As his whole family were – a beautiful family.”
John Mercer was surrounded by supporters, his phone full of “thousands” of text messages.
“I’ll probably never get around to answering them all,” he told the Mercury.
“I’d just like to thank the people of Thirroul, the Illawarra, for their support. Not only for today, but forever.”