It has been a whirlwind year of richly deserved accolades and international attention for remarkably humble hometown hero and Murdoch alumnus Dr Craig Challen SC OAM.
Now one year on from the gripping rescue of 12 young members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach from the flooded Tham Luang Cave system in Thailand, the veterinary science alumnus has been rewarded with a swathe of honours.
Australian of the Year
Since being named a joint-winner of the 2019 Australian of the Year with his dive partner Adelaide anaesthetist Richard Harris, Dr Challen has been kept particularly busy with speaking engagements across the country.
Renowned for his steadfast practicality and modest attitude in the face of unrelenting national and international attention, Dr Challen says it’s both a surprise and an honour.
“I never thought the interest would last for more than a couple of days after we got back from Thailand,” he said speaking from his Perth home this week.
“It’s come as a bit of a surprise to me, and the Australian of the Year Award has made it a bit crazy with me being away nearly every week speaking somewhere around Australia. “It really is a great privilege, but something I never anticipated.”
Dr Challen, now retired from his veterinary career, is no stranger to awards having been named the Oztek Diver of the Year for his services to caving in 2009, but nothing could have prepared him and Dr Harris for what was in store following the rescue.
In the 12 months since taking part in the risky Chiang Rai rescue from 23 June to 10 Jul 2018, the Australian duo and other members of the urgently assembled team of international dive and rescue experts, have been honoured with many diverse awards.
Dr Challen’s efforts in helping to successfully swim out the young soccer players through the dark and flooded cave system have earned him:
- The Star of Courage (SC) and Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) from Australia’s Governor General on 24 July 2018;
- An appointment as a Companion of the Order of the Direkgunabhorn by the King of Thailand on 7 September 2018;
- A Murdoch University Honorary Degree on 18 September 2018;
- The 2019 WA Australian of the Year, announced on 30 October 2018; and
- The joint-winner of the 2019 Australian of the Year award with Dr Harris on January 25.
Dr Challen says the recognition has given him a rare public speaking opportunity to convey the important message of being prepared for the unexpected in life.
“You never know when something is going to come along, out of leftfield, and it’s important to prepare by continuously challenging yourself, trying different things and also getting accustomed to failure from time to time,” he said.
“It’s all part of being the best person that you can be and preparing yourself for whatever comes along.”
Murdoch University Vice Chancellor Professor Eeva Leinonen lauded Dr Challen earlier this year for his message, selflessness, skill and remarkable community contribution.
“We are proud to call Craig an alumnus and we were delighted last year to award him an honorary degree;” she said. “He is a truly inspirational individual who personifies the Australian spirit and can-do attitude.”
Dr Challen and Dr Harris revisited Thailand in April this year to see the children they helped save, and the now dry cave site, which has become a mecca for tourists and helping to grow the local economy.
“That trip and meeting the kids again was really cool and if Richard and I were well known in Australia we were much more famous in Thailand,” he laughingly explained.
“We were treated like royalty and we got to go back and see the cave and speak with the boys.”
Dr Challen attributes the continuing interest in the rescue and those who were part of it to the fact that as a story, it has universal appeal.
“People do seem to get some inspiration and uplift from it, and I think they’re just happy to have something positive to celebrate,” he said.
“There are lots of different aspects of this story to interest everyone - from a mother to kids, adventurers, emergency service or rescue workers. There are a lot of angles to it including rising to a challenge, particularly when you least expect it.”
Dr Challen graduated from Murdoch University with a veterinary science degree in 1987 and went on to co-found and build the Vetwest group of Animals Hospitals in Perth, before retiring in 2017.
Read about Dr Challen's honorary degree and watch his oration given at the ceremony.