‘I only saw him last night’: Devastated mate recalls final beer with Dean Mercer Friends of former Ironman champion Dean Mercer console each other outside Kurrawa Surf Club on the Gold Coast, Monday. Photo: AAP

Friends of former Ironman champion Dean Mercer console each other outside Kurrawa Surf Club on the Gold Coast on Monday. Photo: AAP

Dean Mercer with Reen in 2001.

Dean Mercer with wife Reen in 2005.

TweetFacebookScroll to the bottom of the story to read tributes to DeanLittle did he know at the time but a chance meeting at Sydney Airport on Sunday afternoon was an opportunity for former Ironman Jonathan Crowe to hug his great mate and sporting rival Dean Mercer and say goodbye.

Crowe was about to fly to Melbourne when he bumped into his lifelong mate who he hadn’t seen for several years.

A man is seen putting a screen up at the location where former Ironman champion Dean Mercer died at Markeri Street, Mermaid Waters on the Gold Coast. Photo: AAP

The two sport stars had gone head-to-head in the surf since they were five-year-old Nippers in different Wollongong surf clubs. On Sunday, they enjoyed a couple of beers and shared many memories.

Read more: Dean Mercer dies in Gold Coast crash

Mercer, Crowe and Darren Mercer competed for national and world championships in a golden era for Illawarra and n surf life saving. It was a time when Wollongong competitors were regularly contending for state, national and world championships – often against each other.

But despite never giving a quarter in competition or training, Crowe described Mercer as having a big heart and a great sense of humour.

At the airport Mercer told Crowe he had been in Thirroul on the weekend for a funeral. They bumped into each other just before 5pm and after their conversation Mercer, his wife Reen and their four boys hopped on a plane to fly back to the Gold Coast.

Dean Mercer with wife Reen in 2005.

At 9.30 on Monday morning Crowe was reflecting on how great it had been to catch-up again when he took a call from Phil Clayton, who also lives on the Gold Coast, telling him the news. Crowe couldn’t believe it. Just the night before he had talked to Mercer about another friend who had died recently and how you never know when your time is up.

“I am absolutely devastated. I only saw him last night. We had a few beers and a laugh. He said he had been in Wollongong for the funeral of his grandmother. And that the whole family were there and they spent the weekend together,” Crowe said.

First Darren Mercer, second Dean Mercer and third Jonathon Crowe at a Nutrigrain Ironman Grand Prix.

The two competed against each other for 25 to 30 years and at the elite level during a golden era of the n Ironman competition in the ’90s.

“We competed against each other since we were about five and six. In the Nippers I competed against Darren and Dean,” Crowe said.

“For a long time when we were in the Nutri-Grain competition we trained together and we were in the same swim squad since were were about eight. Probably for 20 years we trained together in the same swim squad with Rick McKeon and Ron McKeon.

‘’We travelled together and trained together on the skis at North Wollongong, and even on the boards. The surf club community in the Illawarra has always been tight-knit and we all trained together a lot of the time. We were in and out of each other’s pockets for a long time.”

They stayed in contact when Dean moved to Queensland although had not seen each other for a while.

“When he came down for the funeral of Rick McKeon I saw him then. But when I walked into the Qantas Club there he was last night with Reen and the boys.

Dean Mercer with his Olympic statue.

‘’I just bumped into him and thought what are the chances of that. We sat there and had a laugh for about an hour. We had a couple of beers and talked about old times and lots of things including how life changes. Then when I got the news this morning it was devastating. I feel so much for Reen and those four beautiful young boys. I had a good chat to them.”

Crowe then gave Mercer a hug and told him how good it was to see him. He described his friend as an amazing person and a tough competitor who never gave an inch.

“He was tenacious. He was an amazing athlete. He wasn’t the biggest guy in the world but he had the biggest ticker and the most determination. I remember even when we were training he wouldn’t let you get in front. I would try and take the lead to share the load even in races when he and I would be up the front. On the surf skis he would be leading and I would be sitting on his wash and I would put in a bit of an effort to move up in front of him so he could sit on my wash and have a bit of a rest. But he would never let me. He always had to have his nose in front.”

Thiroul ironmen Dean and Darren Mercer.

Crowe said behind the scenes way from the racing Mercer got up to a few humorous things and liked to play practical jokes on people.

“He has a great sense of humour and was always laughing in the showers and change rooms where the banter starts after training and after races,” he said.

“He was always funny. He is someone I have known for a long long time and I am just really really shocked that he is gone now. We were always up against one another. He started a little bit earlier than I. And once I finished uni we were competing professionally against each other for a long time.”

Brother Darren Mercer also lives in Queensland as a coach at Noosa. Crowe recalls how the two brothers always had a good rivalry in the surf. They often finished one and two in races and titles with the results going fairly evenly each way. Other n Ironmen knew they had a good race if they beat one or both of the Mercers.

Brothers Dean and Darren Mercer at Thirroul Beach Surf Club in 2007.

“They pushed each other. Their mum and dad are also amazing. I feel for Maureen and John Mercer, his wife Reen and those four beautiful children. When I was younger I used to stay in Thirroul with his mum and dad. And the years we were doing the Nutri-Grain we were spending six to eight hours a day together six to seven days a week,” Crowe said.

It was a time when Wollongong competitors not only raced together but trained together and often finished on the podium together.

“They (Dean and Darren) were the measure for me because they were from the Illawarra and they were the best,” he said.

“Through them surf clubs in the Illawarra became so strong and we had some many champions come out of the area such as Phil Clayton and Rhys Drury and Lilli Miller and so many others such as Wes Berg. The Mercers really started that in the Illawarra and it continued as a result of them for a long long time. We were very dominant at a national and state level.”

Crowe said all those Illawarra competitors have always been rivals in the water but have a bond and a friendship that would never disappear after spending so much time together.

And Dean Mercer was someone everyone looked up to and saw as a benchmark for the level they would need to achieve if they were going to win state, national and world championships.

He said he had known and competed against him for more than 40 years and will always appreciate the influence Mercer had on his own career.

“For six or seven days a week we were in each others pockets and pushing each other. I appreciate what happened during those years so much. It is tragic that he has gone. I feel so sad for his boys. It is so tragic he has died at 47 years of age and with young children that is even more tragic. He was taken way too soon.”

RIP Stumpy Evan Thomas, Bulli

Rest in peace Dean. Sending our condolences to family and friends. Our prayers are with you at this sad time.Bennie family, Balgownie

A true legend and inspiration to so many gone to soonAnthony Newbery, Bridgeman Downs

Dean was my training partner with Ron McKeon in the late 90’s. He was the inspiration for my swimming career which pushed me onto the international scene and a Commonwealth Games Gold medal. Your lessons in motivation and pure determination shaped me into the international athlete I was and the person I am today. Nearly 6hrs on from learning of his passing; I’m still in shock however so thankful of the friendship and the lessons learnt from one of the greatest athletes of our time.Condolences to your Reen, the boys and your extended family. I’ll miss seeing your friendly face at Aussies next year. Rest in peace. You are a true legend!Jason Cram, Woonona

I remember when Darren and Dean were doing laps at Austi pool while John and the Austinmer Otters were having their winter swims. That would have been 35 years ago I guess. My condolences to the family at this tragic time.Alyn Vincent, Thirroul

Christchurch oh my god so sad Shirlette Williams, Christchurch

I grew up seeing the Mercer boys on the back (and front!) page of the Mercury every weekend in summer. They were part of the Wollongong furniture. I remember when Dean came of age, eclipsing Darren, it was history in the making. Dean was the quintessential local hero and will be always. My condolences to all Dean’s family and friends.Claudia, North Wollongong

To the Mercer Family, Deans wife & boys, thinking of you all at this very sad difficult time, how quickly someone can be taken away from us. Amanda, Corrimal

Rip dean your were a great champion and will be sadly missed my sincere condolences to his family fly high mate xDannielle rath, Port Kembla

You will be missed Dean Thinking of your family gone to soonJudeth and Michael Mcdon, Woonona

My deep condolences to Deans family. We have all lost an Illawarra iconGeorge Pastrovic, Mt Warrigal

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