Michael Drapac on the loss of his son Damion, his philosophy of cycling, and life

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On April 25 this year, Michael Drapac’s son Damion (aka ‘Duda’), had his life taken from him in a freakish road accident in Melbourne’s south.

Unfortunately, as cyclists, we hear about this type of thing far too often. I never had the pleasure of knowing Damion, and I don’t know Michael well, but this loss affected me much more deeply than others have. Any parent could empathise with the horror of losing a child, but it’s rare that we see the grief of the family members; it’s rare that one of the family members is such a well-known and influential figure in the cycling community.

In a candid and emotional interview, I spoke with Michael Drapac about the loss of Damion, what he’s learned through his son’s character, his thoughts on road safety, how he’ll continue investing the sport, and how Damion’s legacy will be honoured.

Note: The article below has been constructed from Michael’s answers during a 75-minute interview, with several sections rearranged and edited lightly for fluency. To listen to the entire unedited interview, where Michael talks more about Damion’s legacy, his philosophies on life and success, and much more, hit play below:

On the loss of his son, Damion

I hate the word ‘strong’ and when people tell me to be strong. I don’t want to be strong. I think you need to feel the grief come over you. Cry when you want to and deal with it the way you need. I think you’ve got to, in a way, and in your own mind, work out how to move forward.

The grief comes in waves. If you just allow yourself to be choked by the grief, and when you do get that calmness, what then? And so you’ve got to think about, “Well, how do I find some meaning in his [Damion’s] life? How do I see some positivity in his life, and how am I going to go forward when honouring his life?”

With Damion, you can actually draw enormous strength from his life. If you look at his life carefully, particularly in the last four or five years, how he got on top of his … We all have demons; call them demons, or call them conflicts. Having really resolved those, you could see that he developed such clarity and purpose and tenacity to pursue what he believed was right for him, and actually what was right for everyone. So, you can draw enormous strength from his life. Enormous strength.

And I know that if he were here today, and I was moping around, feeling sorry for myself, he would say, “Dad, cry, do what you have to do, but listen, get on with it. Surely, you can draw some inspiration from my life.”

On the grieving process

The first emotion is … there’s no word for that emotion. That experience is just total, overwhelming … It’s a neurological meltdown. You can’t think. It’s just total collapse. It’s total shutdown, like the computer blows up.

Disbelief is the second one. You think, “No, it can’t be true. It can’t be true.” You don’t want to believe it. You start internally screaming at yourself “This is not true.” And then you get past that.

I cried for somewhere between half an hour to an hour. My partner Francesca had to drive me; I couldn’t drive, and I would’ve been ridiculous to drive. So there’s this total shutdown of all your faculties. You’re not hearing, you’re not seeing. So I don’t know what the emotion for that is. But then the first conscious thing I remember clearly was saying “I don’t want him to be forgotten.” And I think any parent would think like that.

What I admire about him the most is that … he was a warrior. He died on Anzac Day but he was as brave as a soldier … He soldiered through life.

I started to think about him as a person. And I wasn’t purposefully intellectualising — all these emotions came into me. What an extraordinary boy he was. Your kids, when they’re 70, and they’re 90, they’re still boys. What an extraordinary boy he was. And so I kept saying, “I don’t want him to be forgotten. I don’t want him to be forgotten.”

Within an hour I etched in my mind that I don’t want him to be forgotten and that’s where I am still today. I don’t want him to be forgotten.

And then I think the next thing I felt, I felt for his loss. I’ve lost my son, his mother’s lost a son, the boys have lost a brother, his sisters lost a brother, and his friends have lost … They’ve lost. But it’s what he lost, you know? Using a cycling analogy, it’d be like someone having trained for a bike race for 20 years … and this is their day, and a truck hits them 100 meters from the finish line.

And that sense of my grief then really went into his loss, and I felt, from a justice point of view — I was angry and I’m still angry that he was taken, and I believe he was taken — I’ll come to that in a moment — but his loss. He lost his life. Yeah I lost a son, but he lost his life.

And the right to finish the dance. To finish his race. And to show the world who he was, and that’s the thing I’m struggling with the most. Not for my ego, not for my son. I just think he deserved to finish the race. He worked so hard for it.

On Damion’s character

“We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French Philosopher

I’m a very spiritual person. I’ve spent many hundreds of days in retreats and I might come across as feisty. Obviously I am, but I’m also deeply spiritual. It’s been a very important part of my life and continues to be.

He was very much like me in many ways. He was very shy, a very shy boy, innately humble, and never thumped his chest about anything.

And I could talk for the next five hours about examples of his kindness. He didn’t have to think about being kind, he was just innately kind. He would always be …

He wasn’t interested in money, he wasn’t motivated by money. And he’s a fully qualified nutritionist dietitian, and he saw lots of patients, lots of patients, but he wasn’t interested in charging them. Not so he could say he was a good person. I think helping others … he was one of the few people who realised it was for him; he was growing himself.

He was one of those kids where he was very gifted, and he was one of those kids who just sort of floated through. And then he really lost his way a little bit at 17. He should’ve won three or four Australian titles but he was just plagued with bad luck. He was always plagued with bad luck, but serious bad luck.

And then he had this vascular problem with his legs where he couldn’t get, relatively speaking, any blood to his legs, and so then he had two operations. Neither of them worked, and so that was the end of his cycling, for some years. And he came back to it about six, seven years later.

On Damion’s unsanctioned joy ride in his father’s Porsche

I’ve got a very rare Turbo S Porsche. I was away overseas as I often am, and he was staying at my place … and he found the keys to my car. He was 20, so he decided to go for a hoon. And let me tell you, it was a very fast car. I think, when it came out, it was the fastest car in the world. I would have had a meltdown if I had known.

He saw a woman having a fit on the side of the road, an epileptic fit. So he stopped the car. So he’s 20 at the time, stopped the car, somehow managed to get her into the car, and rushed her to the hospital.

And that says so much about him. He had a huge cheeky side. Never thrown a punch in his life, would never hurt anyone, but there he is in this massively powerful car, hooning around, and he’s got the presence of mind. He sees a woman. He was 20 and he’s hooning in my car and he sees a woman having a fit, and he stops the car, somehow manages to get her into the car, and takes her to the hospital. That to me says everything about him.

On what he learned from Damion

I never heard anyone say a bad word about him. Ever.

He’s resilient. He’s had more knockdowns … He just kept getting knocked down. He kept getting up.

And just his kindness. If you said something bad about someone, he would jump to their defence, even if he barely knew them.

I’ve learned a lot from him. I think … what is a meaningful life? I think we’re here to grow our spirits. He was faithfully connected. I mean, he was innately connected with his heart and his soul. I think he just wanted to be a better person, to follow his heart and understand what success was.

On Damion as a cyclist

There’s a photo of him. He’s 18 months old. He was on a bike, and that photo has been on my mantelpiece, and has never left my mantelpiece for 28 years. And if you look at that photo, he’s grinning from ear to ear. His eyes are lit up.

He actually made himself quite a bit of money betting on bike races. He could read a bike race. No one could read a bike race better than him. He could see things in a bike race and performances that other people didn’t see.

And then he came back on the bike; he hadn’t ridden for a number of years, other than just riding to uni and back. In late October, after his exams, he decided he wanted to ride again, and within 10 weeks of training he got second in the Bay Crits support race, which was great for him. And he won 10 races in six weeks, and a lot of those riders were very serious and he was a full-time doctor.

On the freakish circumstances of Damion’s death

It happened on Anzac Day. His partner had only recently learned she was pregnant.

He was riding in a southerly direction on Blackburn Road. Blackburn Road has four lanes, two in either direction. Damion was traveling on the extreme left-hand side of the road, next to the kerb.

The man who hit him — and I feel sorry for the man who hit him — he was traveling in the opposite direction heading north. He had a diabetic hypo. Two witnesses saw him. One of them was driving a car.

He actually drifted across to the other side of the road, completely unconscious. And the woman who was traveling that way, against him, she ran off the road. He’s just come across … and hit Damion head on.

The police investigator, he said, “You know, if you actually want to do the mathematics on that,” he said, “it’s not possible.”

He said, “There were no cars on the road.” Usually it’s a very busy road. And at the right second he’s come across and hit Damion.

On how his children shaped his philosophy

It actually came before. I grew up in a very … I didn’t have a dad, and I lived in a social housing area for the first 15 years of my life. I lived for a year in a foster home because my mum was a single parent. And I started school in shorts, and I finished school in shorts, and I never had a rain jacket.

So you develop that resilience and toughness, but also a sense of what’s fair and what’s right. So I think it was natural for me. I think in my 20s … I got blinded by success. I wanted to make money. I’d never had any money.

And then, I think I started to shape my thinking probably in my early 30s. And in my business life, I never pulled down a building. I was the first property person in the world to be endorsed by the United Nations.

In 1997 I was asked to go on the board of Cycle Sport Victoria to help them with a few things, and I was on the board for a few years. And I was really appalled by the number of kids that would just fall in a black hole. These kids were 16 and 17. This is the VIS [Victorian Institute of Sport] and they were full-time bike riders at 16. Not one of them was doing anything other than bike rides.

In about 2002, at that stage, Patrick [Damion’s brother] and Damion had shown that they had talent. Patrick, in his best year, won five Aussie titles as a junior, so I knew my kids were pretty talented. My daughter was talented. They never made it in a bigger sense, but they were nationally competitive.

You do aspire for your kids to make it to the pro ranks. Of course you do. But I never would have let them be anything other than holistically developed. I went to see the AIS, and said, “Look, I’d like to sponsor a program where those kids would be holistically developed.” And the instructions from the AIS were, and I’ll quote my dear friend Mike McKay who was told … He was on the Australian Sports Commission. He was told that anyone who ever rides with Drapac will never ride for Australia.

And I think that’s where sport needs to go, because the cream will rise to the top anyway. And I think the problem with all our programs is it’s 99.9% that never get to the top, and what are they left with? If you take 1,000 kids who aspire to be an Olympian in all sports, 1% will make it. The 99% that don’t make it, they’ve got nothing. They actually have nothing, not even the satisfaction that they made it. And they can’t reconcile their failure.

So I think that holistic development is actually not for the winners. Holistic development isn’t for the ones who win and get the gold medal. It’s for the 99% that don’t win. So I think the 99% that don’t win, they’re just broken. They’re just broken individuals.

Note: Drapac Cycling has seen approximately 40 university graduates go through its development program since inception.

On Michael’s continued contribution to cycling

I’m a little bit over the whole WorldTour. I really am. I still look at results every day, don’t get me wrong. The thing I’ve learned about sport is this, just from experience.

The beauty in elite sport is confined to the field. You don’t see beauty off the field. You see egos and loneliness and drugs and greed. Greedy unappreciative people who think they’re worth $2 million instead of $1 million.

It’s a fleeting beauty, but it’s beautiful to watch on the field. And it inspires us. But off the field, there’s no inspiration.

Grassroots is beautiful, and it promotes community. And that’s the purpose of sport. And I think having got to the top — we were at WorldTour for three years — I actually came to understand that real beauty. My son really taught me a lot about this too.

With grassroots, you see the boys go to the race. You see them race together quite combatively. Then you see after the race, they’ve gone to the local coffee shop, and they’re laughing. You just look at this. It’s just beautiful. It’s beautiful before, during, after — even in their training runs.

On honouring Damion’s legacy

It goes back to a really simple sentence, the Greek and Roman idea of the purpose of sport — it’s to promote and enhance community. And we’ve just lost our way completely.

Everything we’re doing to honour my son is all going to be about grassroots. There’s several things we’re going to do. And they’re not going to be ostentatious, and they’re not going to be flamboyant. They’re going to be meaningful.

And we will do the following. One, we’re going to have a little bike home, a house, where his mates can go, and the family can go at Bright, which is the place where … that’ll be his home.

Secondly, we’ll work with the Brunswick Cycle Club, where it all began for him when he was eight, or seven. And we’ll have a memorial race, which will be Anzac Day, but it’ll be a grassroots race. It’ll be a rich race, but it’ll be a grassroots race, and it’ll memorialise him.

We’ll support some grassroots programs. There won’t be hundreds of thousands, but there’ll be … The clubs don’t need a lot of money — $10,000, or $15,000. So we’ll support a couple of grassroots programs.

And we’ll support WeRide, which is the group run by Stephen Hodge, and Phil Latz, because that’s the sort of stuff which Damion would have loved.

And we’ll have two scholarships for people that represent holistic development. They’ll have to be of a certain standard in cycling. But people that are following that ethos of what Damion championed. So there’ll be two every year. They’ll be two-year scholarships. And I think they’ll become very prestigious scholarships. And they’ll be significant. It’ll probably be $40,000 scholarships.

And there’ll be a small medical scholarship; grassroots medicine. Basically Damion did three GAMSATs [Graduate Medical School Admissions Tests], and GAMSATs are very expensive. So we’ll sit down with the Austin Hospital, and Deakin University, and work out some sort of grant. It’ll probably be $100,000 a year for that.

And we’ll just set the whole fund up, and the trust, and make sure it’s all structured properly, and set it up for 100 years.

And then just his life story. I think it’ll be a bio of a young man who … he’s going to be forever young. Which is a story I think people can relate to. He was a cyclist, he never got to the Tour de France, he never won an Australian title. But he was very, very successful, and a meaningful sportsperson, doctor, family man. And I would think that that would inspire a lot of people. So that’s how we’re going to remember him.

A tribute to Damion Drapac.

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