Long Course start to pay tribute to Dean Mercer at the 2017 Coates Hire Coolangatta Gold
Competitors in Sunday’s Coates Hire Coolangatta Gold will raise their paddles as a tribute to Ironman Dean Mercer before embarking on the 41.8km marathon.
Mercer, who died after suffering a heart attack on August 28, chased the Coolangatta Gold crown over many years and he will be in the thoughts of the athletes when they line up for the marathon event.
Competitors will wear a black wrist band carrying the words “Doing it for Dean” and when standing on the start line the entrants in the Elite division will raise their ski paddles in silent tribute.
Mercer’s older brother Darren, the winner of the Coolangatta Gold in 1992, will start the race.
Defending women’s champion Courtney Hancock said memories of Dean had driven her through the grinding hours of training ahead of this weekend’s race.
“About six weeks ago I was struggling through training, but then the news about Dean came through,” she said.
“That was when I said, ‘Why am I complaining about training. I’m out here doing something that Dean absolutely loved, it was his life and passion.’
“For me, Dean has been there to help all of us get through the past month. To do the paddles-up and wear the wrist band, he’ll be there with each and every one of us.”
Ironman legend Shannon Eckstein, who is racing in the Coates Hire Coolangatta Gold for the first time in a decade, said the paddles-up would be a special way to start the race and that he had been similarly inspired in his preparation.
“I trained with Dean when he trained for the Coolangatta Gold a few years back at Northcliffe,” Eckstein said. “He was so passionate about the race.
“About a month ago I was having a bit of trouble with my legs and then the tragedy happened, and I thought, ‘you know what, I’m lining up no matter what, I’m going to give it a go.’
“I probably owe a lot from the work ethic I got from Dean, training with him for the Gold all those years ago.”
Four-time men’s champion Ali Day grew up in the same area as the Mercer brothers on the NSW South Coast and was inspired by their performances.
“Both Dean and Darren were heroes of mine, and we shared a few of the same coaches too,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to Sunday and I feel really proud to be able to wear one of these armbands.”
A record number of 741 competitors across 487 entries are set to take part in the iconic event, although that number may increase as entries are yet to close.
The increase of more than 100 competitors on last year and 25% boost in entries makes it the biggest line-up in the history of the event, which is being raced for the 17th time.
Another victory for Day would draw him level with Caine Eckstein as the most successful competitor since the race started in 1984.
He said he is happy with his preparation and is now anxiously waiting to get to the start line.
“My coaches and I have done the work and we’re confident,” Day said.
“When you step on the start line you take a lot of confidence knowing you have done everything.
“There is no luck involved with this one. You have to go out there and race for four hours, or however long it takes.”
Shannon Eckstein returns to the race for the first time since 2007, when he finished second behind Rhys Drury.
While he has won eight Australian ironman and nine professional series titles, Eckstein’s pursuit of the Coolangatta Gold trophy has been hampered by a leg condition that makes running difficult, especially in the concluding 7.1km run leg.
“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve done in my career getting ready for Sunday,” he said.
“I had the popliteal artery entrapment syndrome diagnosed in 2007. The surgery I had to have to fix the problem was a little bit risky so I just decided to concentrate on short course racing.
“I’ve achieved everything I’ve dreamed of in that space so I had the surgery back in May and put in all my efforts to get ready for Sunday.
“I’ve had a great medical team help get me to the line and I’m confident I’ll get through it.”
Hancock was highly emotional after winner her second Coolangatta Gold title last year and speaking to the media alongside Day, Eckstein and clubmate Maddy Dunn, she paid tribute to the support crews that help get the athletes to the start line.
“You see the four of us here but the people that you don’t see behind us, there are so many who help,” she said.
“The amount of messages that are just starting to come in this week, the coaches we have, the friends, the physios, massage, my neighbours are going to help me handing.
“There are so many people who come out to help us. Even though you are out there on your own, there are many people behind us.”
Darren Mercer spoke passionately about him and his brothers love of the event, saying when they first raced the Gold in 1991 they had no idea what they had “got themselves into” – but came back 12 months later with Darren winning the iconic race with little brother Deano third.
“It as the start of a love affair Dean had with the Gold and even though he never won it, he never stopped trying to – that was the kind of person he was – he never gave up.
“It is so nice to see what Surf Life Saving is doing to honour the little bloke’s memory – I know the family will be forever grateful.
“What people like Courtney, Shannon and Ali have said about Dean is incredible. It has been a tough time but for Dean to be remembered like this is very special.”