Star Profile: David Fagan

By Chris Rattue

What's this going to be about then?" asks David Fagan, as he welcomes me to his home at the end of a twisting, climbing driveway on the fringe of Te Kuiti.

Te Kuiti is most famous as the home of Colin Meads - Fagan's farmhouse overlooks Meads' Waitete rugby club. But Te Kuiti is also the self-proclaimed home of shearing - and Fagan is the sport's most successful exponent.

The answer to his initial question should be obvious. Having been honoured in the Queen's Birthday list - his second such gong - he is ripe for a profile.

It's been an unusually long media week for Fagan. At 45, he may have five individual world, 16 national and 15 Golden Shears titles, yet these victories have been more results column than front-page headlines.

It was his participation in the boxing charity Fight for Life event and the Queen's Birthday honour which have brought the greatest attention. Such is the profile of a shearer - even the greatest in the history of the sport.

"The media attention has been huge, which is quite strange really because I never get this attention when I win big titles," he says. "I haven't actually done anything, yet all these people are ringing me."

Shearers come in the full range of sizes and Fagan has the build of an average guy. He wasn't a sporty kid. Possibly - although he doesn't say this is the reason - because he suffered from chronic shyness as a teenager.

It is his English wife, Wendy - a Devon dairy-farm girl who met Fagan at a Welsh show where she was watching showjumping - who supplies the best anecdote describing what sound like Fagan's teenage agonies.

A family story goes that the agonisingly-shy Fagan first met his new sister-in-law on her wedding day. Before that, he hid whenever she visited the family home.

It was shearing - and the need to travel out of the highly competitive Te Kuiti environment to find work - which brought Fagan out of his shell. He was a top woodwork student at Piopio College and had wanted to be a builder. Encouraged by the shearing careers of his brothers John and Geoff, he entered a four-day shearing school and won the final contest.

To get work, the novice Fagan had to travel to the South Island, East Coast and then Australia. "I don't know why I was so shy and it's bloody annoying, looking back," he says.

"I look at our two children, who are just the opposite, and it gives them so many more opportunities. But I believe that travelling makes you a better person and I came back from Australia a different person. It forces you to meet people, to interact."

Not all shearers enter competitions but it is fiercely competitive in the workplace anyway, as shearers battle to be the No 1 man.

Shearing was hierarchical- and it still is, although to a lesser degree. The fastest shearer gets the choice of ends, the next fastest parks closest to him, and so on down the line.

Te Kuiti is among the most competitive and skilled shearing environments. It fired the young Fagan, who had a thirst for knowledge.

"It is all about learning the right technique," he says. "It is such a repetitious thing, so the technique becomes second nature.

"I was always keen to learn off anyone. My brother John would teach me anything he could, and I guess I was a good student. Even when you get to the top of the heap, you are looking for a better way."

Fagan was ambitious from the start. After winning his first Golden Shears, he set his sights on Snow Quinn's record of six wins - even though many believed it would never be bettered. Having topped that mark, he immediately set after double figures.

A story around the famous Masterton shearing event sums up the Fagan credo. On the Millennium Eve, and just two months out from attempting to win his 11th consecutive Golden Shears title, Fagan broke his collarbone falling from a motorbike at the home of Alan MacDonald, a fellow world champion shearer.

Fagan pleaded with doctors to plate and bolt the injury so he could shear immediately. Even in a drugged state, as Wendy drove him home from the hospital, he plotted his comeback. He sought expert sports advice from Dr John Mayhew, who confirmed that rest was the only remedy, and that it could not be bolted.

Mayhew did offer key advice though. To prevent too much deterioration, Fagan should - as much as the pain would allow - move the shoulder during the rehabilitation period. Fagan worked furiously in the gym to keep the rest of his body in shape, then tentatively tested the shoulder by shearing a sheep on his farm one day.

"You keep thinking it is going to break again," he says.

He reached the final of a competition in Otorohanga, then stunned everyone by winning in Gore. But he was still an outside Golden Shears prospect, with virtually no preparation behind him. "Everyone told me, 'You won't win in Masterton,"' he recalls.

"I love it when people say you can't do something. Wendy and I only talked like that between ourselves - you never show your hand."

Needless to say, Fagan won. It produced an amusing sequel. Noting that he had won the Golden Shears, the head office of his income insurers refused to believe he had actually broken his collarbone. They demanded to see the x-rays - a back-handed compliment of sorts, although Fagan was miffed. "I was a bit insulted, but at the same time it was quite amusing," he says. These were the days in which he "lived and breathed" shearing, but he is a different character now. He even relinquished his shearing contracting business a few years ago.

Fagan is still entwined in the sport, though. Long after he puts down the snips, he will remain on the hips - along with his brother John he puts out a line of shearing jeans. He has made other shearing-related business ventures along the way.

Fagan now works for Tru-Test shearing equipment as an ambassador and product developer, which has prolonged his competitive career.

It's good for the company that he still competes, and his contact with the industry has made Fagan realise that "you're a long time retired".

But a man who won around 80 per cent of all competitions in his prime is back in the pack these days - almost. Despite not shearing regularly, he was good enough to win a national title in Te Kuiti this year, to continue his long sequence in the national team.

That competitive spirit still leaps to the surface as he declares that, on his day, he can still get fired up for the big competitions against younger opponents.

The best advice he ever received came from the late George Potae, given to a nervous Fagan moments before he won his first title.

"Start off fast," the old shearer told him "and steadily get faster."

Fagan found a way of taking this to extremes, although the evidence of his career is hard to spot in the family home. Trophies that once filled a room remain packed away since their latest move.

"Shearing is only a part of my life now ... I don't want to shove it down people's throats," he says.

The only shearing-related photo on the wall is an enlarged version of the stamp made by a private delivery firm to honour Fagan's contribution to Masterton.

There is one other photograph on the wall, though.

It shows Fagan in action in the Fight for Life when - having just returned from an overseas mission with the national team - he was pummelled in the ring by the actor Manu Bennett.

"One of the greatest challenges I ever faced," says Fagan.

It is intriguing, that a man who has won so much cherishes - indeed draws attention to - a photo detailing such a public defeat. It displays a healthy perspective on life.

Fagan appears to be a man who has got his treasured shearing memories nicely in place and is using his wonderful past to happily move on.

SHEARING LEGEND

Age: 45

Home: Te Kuiti cattle farm

Family: Wife Wendy, kids Jack (15), Jenna (13)

Titles: 5 world, 6 world team, 16 national, 15 Golden Shears

Won total of 582 open titles worldwide since 1983

World records: Set 10 between 1985 and 2004

New Zealand Honours: MNZM (1999), ONZM (2007)

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