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Sports guru has life’s work recognised

Suzanne Lazaroo

27 September 2018: For sports medicine and sports science pioneer Dr Peter Fricker OAM, people have always been front and centre in his work.

He has spent 45 years in the industry, clocking in as the longest-serving director of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) between 2005 and 2011. Dr Fricker joined the AIS as its first sports physician in 1981.

So when he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Canberra this week, it held even greater meaning than the recognition of his life’s work.

“Not only does this recognise how far you’ve come along in your career, it honours the people that made that possible,” Dr Fricker said. “My life’s work is the culmination of the people I have had around me – and that’s how it should be. There are very few honours which are singularly deserved.

“My work has involved me spending a lot of time away from my family. My wife Robyn has been incredibly patient and understanding, as have my kids, Chris, James and Katherine.

“The people I worked with at the AIS and the University have always been so supportive.”

Initial news of the Honorary Doctorate left Dr Fricker stunned.

“When the Vice-Chancellor rang me, I initially thought it was to do with one of the UC committees I was on,” he said. “When he told me about the Honorary Doctorate, I was speechless – probably one of the few times in my life that I’ve been lost for words.”

Dr Fricker’s long relationship with the University of Canberra dates to when the institution was the Canberra College of Advanced Education. He lectured in sports medicine in 1982.

In 1993, he established the Master of Sports Medicine degree at the University. The program pioneered the education of sports physicians in Canberra, and students came from around the world to study it.

As a current Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, Dr Fricker contributes to the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise (UC-RISE) Research Advisory Board.

Additionally, he has long been involved in research, particularly in the fields of immunology and exercise and injury management.

Never an athlete himself, Dr Fricker’s foray into sports medicine was catalysed by his twin brother, John, who was an Australian rules player for the University of Sydney. When his team needed a trainer, Dr Fricker, then a medical student, volunteered.

“The experience opened up a fascinating new world of medicine for me,” he said. “I was seeing and learning stuff I had never heard of. I had to do a lot of my own research, and I had such motivated patients because sportsmen want to do what it takes to get better and play again.”

As a student and then a medical resident, Dr Fricker didn’t have his own clinic. He ended up seeing his athlete patients in the lounge room at home.

“That was barefoot, grassroots medicine,” he said. “They were grateful and responsive, never having had a dedicated sports doctor before.

“I wanted to just be a really good sports physician and to make a difference in people’s lives. To that end, I decided that I had to be a leader in my field.”

Dr Fricker’s focus was two-pronged: to highlight the benefits of sports and exercise to the larger community and to hone his skills in the realm of high performance sports medicine.

“Being at AIS, in particular, gave me the chance to work with high performance athletes, take the results of that work and feed it into a broader scope, across community and occupational medicine, the military – to name a few.

“There were always broader implications and applications, it wasn’t about being in an ivory tower.”

Dr Fricker’s remarkable career has included time as the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Sports Commission. He accompanied the national teams as medical officer and medical director for six Commonwealth Games and five Olympic Games.

He also holds professorial appointments with Victoria University and Griffith University.

In 1993, Dr Fricker received the Medal of the Order of Australia, which joined the many other awards on his mantelpiece, including the Australian Sports Medal in 2001, the Citation for Distinguished Service to Sports Medicine by the Australasian College of Sports Physicians in 2010, and the Order of Merit of the Australian Olympic Committee in 2012.

After a lifetime of leadership, there are no retirement plans on the horizon.

“I simply don’t want to retire,” Dr Fricker said. “I like being useful and intend to be for as long as people think I can be.”

Enjoying a broad involvement over a multiplicity of disciplines and areas of interest, Dr Fricker is Swimming Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, sits on the board of the Indigenous Marathon Foundation, on the Anti-Doping Rule Violation Panel and chairs a research advisory board at the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention.

“To name a few – I have about 12 different jobs at the moment,” he said.

One of Dr Fricker’s most important positions, though, is as grandfather to his daughter’s two children.

“Now that I set my own hours, I’m getting better at work-life balance. And being a grandfather is probably the most fun I’ve ever had.”