Remembering Trailblazing Coach Harry Gallagher On The Day An Olympic Blazer Went Missing

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WATCHFUL EYE: Harry Gallagher the man who made Dawn Fraser. Photo Courtesy Sydney Daily Telegraph.

Legendary swim coach Harry Gallagher was the man solely responsible for changing the lives of so many Australians – a man who made a difference, a man who had the ability to get the absolute best out of his charges.

A decorated life of Olympian proportions for a devoted husband, father, grand-father, three-time Olympic coach (’56, ’60 and ’68) and so much more.

A man with a status in the world of swimming as the likes of famous Australian coaches Harry Hopman on a tennis court, Jack Gibson with rugby league football and Kevin Sheedy with Australian Football.

A man who crammed 10 lives into one and a life celebrated in style on the Gold Coast on Saturday as a small group of family, friends, Olympians, coaches and swimmers gathered to pay tribute to the man they called “The Fox.”

Fittingly Harry’s coffin was draped proudly and prestigiously with the Olympic flag, the five rings also sitting on top the order of service with a photo of Harry, his trusty stop watch at the ready.

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REMEMBERING COACH GALLAGHER: Dawn Fraser and Margaret Messenger (nee Gibson). Photo Courtesy: Hanson Media.

Amongst those in the front row were two of his many Olympians – the legendary Dawn Fraser and her 1956 Melbourne Games team mate and fellow relay gold medallist Margaret Messenger (nee Gibson).

Triple Olympian Lisa Curry (1980, 1984, 1992) delivering an impassioned, heartfelt tribute to her first coach via video as coaches, Olympic gold medal winning coach Laurie Lawrence and fellow former National coach, now Swim Australia CEO Gary Toner sat mesmerised as stories from Harry’s sons Kym and Sean told of their lives as Harry’s boys as swimmers and sons.

Dawny resplendent in a 1992 Barcelona Olympic blazer when she was part of the Australian management team as an Athlete Advisor, Margaret conspicuous without a blazer.

But to those in the room and so many more watching on the live stream had no idea the anguish Margaret was going through as she prepared to deliver her eulogy on the man who took her to those ’56 Games and also deliver a tribute from her US-based Melbourne team mate, gold medallist Jon Henricks.

The 82-year-old Messenger had flown into the Gold Coast from Adelaide to attend the service, accompanied by her treasured ’56 Olympic blazer.

But in the rush to disembark the plane Margaret left the blazer in the overhead locker – not realising her dilemma until arriving at the Nerang funeral in a taxi.

And not sharing her anguish with team mate Fraser until hours after the delivery of their emotional tributes to the man who had made their Olympic careers possible.

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BACK SAFE AND SOUND: Margaret Messenger (nee Gibson) displaying her returned 1956 Olympic blazer. Photo Courtesy: Margaret Messenger.

Some hurried phone calls to Gold Coast Airport and the Jetstar Airline staff and the missing blazer left above Seat 7A was thankfully located.

The resplendent bottle green blazer with the Olympic Games emblem was delivered safely by Jetstar staff to the airport’s baggage service area and collected by Margaret before her return flight to Adelaide, where she first met Harry as she prepared for the ’56 Olympic Trials.

“I reckon Harry was shining down on Margaret,” was the comment from the table of Olympians, their family and friends as they toasted Harry’s life with a sip of champagne – no doubt with Harry’s approval.

“That blazer means the world to me..as did Harry…and I am so relieved..I thought it may have been lost..so thank you to the Jetstar staff for preserving my slice of history,” said Margaret as she chatted with team mate Fraser, just as concerned for her as everyone in the room.

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PROTECTIVE PUSS: Margaret Messenger’s pet Persian Raja happy to see the prized blazer back at home. Photo Courtesy: Margaret Messenger.

Earlier Margaret had bravely delivered her own tribute to Harry, on behalf of so many of Harry’s squads, many who could not attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.“In 1955 I was flattered when Harry arrived in Adelaide and he invited me to join his Golden Dolphins swim squad along with Dawn Fraser, Jon Henricks and Murray Garretty –names I knew but never expected to meet,” said Margaret.

“My life changed then. I hardly knew anything about the Olympic Games. There was no TV then and we didn’t really learn anything about the Olympic Games at home or at school.

“It was though I was moving into a different world…I don’t think my family even comprehended what I was doing.

“Harry was a strict disciplinarian and a great leader and coach. He had the ability to make us feel as though we were champions….and after one summer training with Harry he raised me to the level where I was selected in the Australian Olympic Swimming Squad, something that I had never even dreamed of and Harry Gallagher made that happen…Dawn and I were both members of the 4x100m freestyle relay team.

“My story is typical of many. Harry coached swimmers from every Australian State and using what were then rudimentary scientific methods achieved some of the greatest results of any coach in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and other world events. I was the only local South Australian to be selected (not counting Dawn who had moved to Adelaide to live) and I was very proud to be part of his greatest achievements.”

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SUNNY DAYS IN TOWNSVILLE: Harry Gallagher with Dawn Fraser and Jon Henricks. Photo Courtesy: Dawn Fraser Collection.

And the 1956 Olympic 100m freestyle champion, Henricks reflected on a coach who was so multi-talented.

“He has to be a master psychologist. Somehow he has to persuade his charges to work themselves to the point of total exhaustion day after day.

“He has to be aware of all the latest physiological advances in training. He has to obtain the trust of his charges that his coaching will bring them victory.

“Harry was master of all these.

“And he was also a father figure – we looked to him for advice on practically everything. Above all he kept us laughing! Not an easy thing to do when you’re certain that just one more lap will bring a painful death.

“I had an intense desire to call Harry just hours before his death. Though he couldn’t speak he could hear me and understand me so I assured him that his first team loved him. His smile was my reward..Dear Harry we’ll never forget you.”

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