World-famous wildlife expert Steve Irwin was named Australian of the Year – but the decision was overturned at the last moment and the honour handed to cricket star Steve Waugh.
The stunning revelation is in a memoir by former Olympian Lisa Curry, who was chair of the National Australia Day Council at the time in 2004.
The sudden switch came amid a media and public outcry after the much-loved "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin was photographed holding his then-baby son Robert while feeding a croc at the Irwin family's Australia Zoo.
The council, which awards Australia's most prestigious honour and which had already told Irwin he would be the recipient, made the call to change tack in the belief he could nominate again in a few years' time.
But tragedy intervened before that could happen, when Irwin was fatally stung by a ray in 2006.
In an exclusive interview with the Saturday Telegraph and other News Corp papers, Curry said she would have made a different decision today – and if it were possible, she would give Irwin the award posthumously.
"It was such a shemozzle that should never have happened,'' she said. "Today, I would have just said 'no, we are going ahead with it'.
"Sometimes you do things to please people, to please the media or the public, and these days I'd go 'No. This is what we are doing. The person deserves it and it's going to stand."
In her memoir, "Lisa: 60 years of Love, Life & Loss", Curry opens up about her life as a triple Olympian and Commonwealth Games champion, making an Olympic comeback as a 30-year-old mum, and her marriage to, and divorce from, Ironman Grant Kenny.
She also speaks about the death of her daughter Jaimi at the age of 33 after years of mental illness, including eating disorders and alcohol abuse, and how she struggled to find her way out of the dark clouds of grief which descended on her when her daughter died.
And she has detailed some never-before-told stories about her life and career, including the Steve Irwin crisis which erupted in January 2004, halfway through her eight-year tenure as chair of the National Australia Day Council – a role she was appointed to by then-prime minister John Howard.
"Steve was aware that he'd won because, in those days, it was my job to ring the recipients and let them know,'' she writes, describing Irwin's commitment to conservation and charismatic expertise in glowing terms.
"It was so hard to make a decision to take away somebody's award, which they'd won fair and square.
"After speaking with Steve, it was agreed he would withdraw his nomination. He could renominate another year. Steve Waugh ended up winning it that year and he was a very good Australian of the Year for 2004. I don't know whether he knew that Steve Irwin had been the first choice."
Irwin's widow Terri, and their now adult children Bindi and Robert, continue to run the family's zoo.
"I want his family to know that he was, and always will be, a worthy recipient of that award," Curry writes.