By AINSLEY THOMSON
David Fagan felt quietly confident at last month's Waikato Regional Sports Awards. After all, 2003 had been a phenomenal year for the champion shearer. The 42-year-old with the closely-shaved head sat at a table at the Hamilton Gardens pavilion with his wife, Wendy, and his supporters and listened as each finalist's achievements were read out and applauded.
But when Fagan's turn came, his list of achievements was cut short. He was dismissed as having represented New Zealand in shearing overseas. There was no mention of the world shearing title he won, or the New Zealand Open title, the Golden Shears, or the 26 other titles he won around the world.
At the table behind him, a group of prominent netballers sniggered, "He's just a bloody shearer, what's he doing being nominated?"
"It was then that I thought, 'I'm out of here'," said Fagan. "You realise you'll never get any recognition."
The title of sportsman of the year went to recently retired jockey Lance O'Sullivan.
"It wasn't disappointing that David didn't win," said Wendy Fagan. "It was disappointing that they didn't even read out why he was there in the first place. They really downplayed it. It made David feel about two inches tall."
Fagan is one of the most successful sportsmen New Zealand has produced. Last weekend, for a record 15th time, he won New Zealand's top shearing prize, the Golden Shears - nine more wins than the legendary Brian "Snow" Quinn, who had title wins between 1965 and 1972.
The King Country farmer and father of two is the Michael Schumacher of his sport. He has dominated rivals nationally and internationally for the past two decades. In the Golden Shears last weekend, Fagan shore 20 sheep in just over 16 minutes - around 48 seconds per sheep - and beat his nearest competitor by more than an entire sheep.
But his accomplishments are little known outside the rural community.
He is better known in Britain, where he is a hero in the highlands of northern Wales. Shearing has allowed him to travel the world, and even led him to his wife, Wendy, who he met in the beer tent at the Royal Welsh Show in 1989.
Competitive shearing has spilled into just about every facet of his life and he admits to not doing "a hell of a lot" else. He and his brother John even have a clothing label called Fagan that makes specialty shearing jeans and is "ticking along quite nicely".
But while his face has featured on a milk container in Switzerland, it is barely recognised in his own country. There are no lucrative sponsorship deals, no glamorous television presenting jobs, no woman's magazine stories about his wife and kids.
Nor would you gather from Fagan's spacious home on his 100ha farm overlooking Te Kuiti that he is a world champion. There is no trophy cabinet, no framed pictures on the walls of him accepting awards. His most recent prize, the Golden Shears trophy, is haphazardly placed in the dining room. Most of the other trophies are out the back in cardboard boxes.
There is a woolshed on the farm, but Fagan avoids using the "old dunger" if possible. Mainly because he says he hates sheep, describing them as a necessary evil.
Shearing then would seem a strange career choice. But the moment Fagan began to learn the skill as a 16-year-old at agriculture college in the King Country town of Piopio, he knew it was what he wanted to do.
"I was mad keen on it. I had a burning desire to be the best ever and to get as much knowledge about it as I could."
Fagan got his first taste of shearing growing up on his family's sheep and beef farm in Mairoa, 26km west of Te Kuiti. The youngest of six, he heard about the sport from his older brothers John, Geoff and Ken.
For Fagan it was not enough to want to become the best shearer in the world, he also wanted to get there as quickly as possible. His brother John, older by 11 years, helped him get there.
"He taught me everything. Then I got to the stage when we were competing against each other. We complemented each other. It was a real learning atmosphere."
Although the brothers went head-to-head in competitions there was no animosity between them.
"He won the Golden Shears in 1984 and I was second. At that stage being second was the best place I could have been. It felt right."
Two years later Fagan won the coveted Golden Shears title for the first time.
It is Fagan's mental toughness that makes him so good. That and his total determination to win. And win he has. Over his 20-year competitive career he has won more than 550 competitions, including five world titles. In his younger days he also set gruelling nine-hour endurance records, which have been compared to running two marathons back-to-back by experts.
His record of wins puts him up with, and arguably beyond, any of New Zealand's top sportsmen. But he has never had the recognition of the likes of Mark Todd or Rob Waddell.
This week, in the wake of Fagan's latest Golden Shears victory, shearing industry leaders called for recognition beyond the shearing shed. In particular it was felt that the Halberg Sports Awards judges had not given Fagan his due. One of 15 world champions among the 55 nominations for the 2003 sportsman of the year awards, Fagan was not among the finalists.
"There was probably never a better chance for shearing to get some recognition," said Fagan.
Shearing Sports chief executive Gavin Rowland said Fagan's international record was unparalleled. "If that's the criteria, his international record stacks up," he said. "If he played any other sport like rowing or rugby he would have been recognised a long time ago."
Golden Shears president Greg Herrick said it was a crime Fagan had not been recognised among New Zealand's top sports achievers.
"It begs the question why he [Fagan] isn't treated with the same hand. He is among New Zealand's most superior athletes and a household name around the world. What more does he have to do to grab their attention?"
Not one to "row his own boat", Fagan says if there was ever a year shearing should have won a major award, it was 2003. He says the reason for the lack of recognition is simple.
"Shearing is not a mainstream sport. I can understand it. It's a sport within a major industry and it's not televised."
He believes shearing suffers because it is perceived more as being a primary industry than a competitive sport. He also thinks because it is a rural sport it is dismissed with other competitions, such as woodchopping.
Shearing's profile was not always so trim. In the 1950s and 1960s, the legendary Godfrey Bowen was invited to Buckingham Palace, appeared on late-night American television and was honoured by the leader of the Soviet Union. He was also one of the inaugural inductees into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
And at the first Golden Shears contest in 1961, the army had to be called in to control the huge crowd.
Today, the sport of shearing is clawing its way back and Fagan's remarkable record has helped raise its profile. In recent years competitions such as the Golden Shears have had a resurgence in popularity.
The TAB now offers odds on big events and more sponsors are being attracted, mainly agriculture-based such as Wrightsons and Ravensdown, but also Air New Zealand and DB.
Fagan says they will keep promoting shearing and raising its profile, but the reality is, it will never be a mainstream sport.
"Basically I am resigned to the fact that shearing will never be recognised."
He may not have had fame, and the monetary gains in competitive shearing are minor, but for some reason Fagan keeps on going. And going.
At first, he says, shearing was an obsession, now it's more of a passion. He takes a more laidback approach and doesn't train like he used to, now he can rely on his knowledge and skill.
The question Fagan is continuously asked is, "When will you retire?"
"I don't know what to do. There is great camaraderie in shearing. It wouldn't be just hard walking away from the competing, it would be hard walking away from the people, too."
For a man who has won just about every shearing prize there is, Fagan has a strangely ambivalent attitude to winning.
"The fun of winning is getting there. Once you have done it, it feels a bit empty and you have to look forward to the next thing."
By AINSLEY THOMSON