BY NEIL KEARNEY
The hardest part of telling Harley Windsor’s story is convincing people it’s true.
I’m eating lunch with Harley and we’re ploughing through an emu egg omelette, followed by kangaroo patties and a plate of medium-rare crocodile.
This isn’t some flash bush tucker-themed eatery – we’re actually in the cramped kitchen of Harley’s family home, being fussed over by his mum Josie.
Harley comes home from training every lunchtime, famished after several hours of effort, and he loves to hoe into a feed of mum’s indigenous cooking.
Harley’s name might sound like he’s a motorcycle-riding royal, but he’s in fact a humble 21 year-old who lives in Sydney’s outer western suburbs. In one of sport’s most unlikely stories, Harley is set to become the first indigenous person to represent Australia at the Olympic Winter Games when he partners Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya in figure skating in Pyeonchang, South Korea in February.
Harley lives at Rooty Hill, which is so far out west that the taxi fare from Sydney airport cost me $190. Ekaterina’s home is in Moscow, which is even further out than Rooty Hill.
How have a young man of indigenous heritage and a teenager who has only just learnt to speak English been chosen to represent Australia in this most difficult, demanding and artistic sport? Well, as we feast in Josie’s kitchen, a remarkable story unfolds. Josie brings out a video of a young Harley performing aboriginal dances, which he did from the time he could walk. He was raised in the local aboriginal community near Rooty Hill. As we chat, she regularly steps out into the backyard to check on a mulligatawny that’s simmering in a camp oven.
Harley is the youngest of nine siblings, though he’s actually the only child of both Josie and her husband, Peter Dahlstrom. Josie and Peter each have four children from former marriages.
Josie’s heritage is from the Weilwyn and Gamilaraay people of western New South Wales. She grew up in a camp without power or running water near Gulargambone, a town between Dubbo and Walgett. Peter is from Moree, of the Gamilaraay and Ngarrable people, and also has Swedish ancestry.
Harley’s introduction to skating was accidental. When he was nine, his mum took a wrong turn, got lost and was forced to stop at Maccas in Blacktown. Harley noticed the old ice rink across the road and asked his mum if he could give skating a try. When he hadn’t returned after 45 minutes, she went looking for him, fearful that he had fallen over and broken something.
When she saw him on the ice, she realised immediately he was a natural. “I didn’t know you could skate, son,” Josie said. “Neither did I,” he replied.
Within a year of first putting on the skates, he won the NSW championship for his age. He competed in his first international competition at 12. It was in New Zealand, and he landed a triple jump. Around that age, Harley told his mum that he would one day skate for Australia in the Olympic Games. She believed him then, but she still can’t believe it now that he’s been selected on the team.
Figure skating is an expensive sport – skates, rink fees, travel to and from training and competition all add up. Despite being battlers, Josie and Peter have for more than a decade scraped together the money to pay for Harley’s passion – even putting the petrol in his car and the skates on his feet.
Coached by Russian-born Galina and Andrei Pachin, who’ve lived in Australia for 16 years, Harley reached national level as an individual skater. But his height of 186cm meant that pairs skating had to be his real target. Finding a suitable female in Australia was impossible. The Pachins flew to Russia at their own expense to find a female skater who would be happy with being thrown nearly two and a half metres into the air, upside down, and balancing on one of Harley’s hands while they travelled at speed across the ice. The Pachins found 16 year-old Ekaterina, or Katia for short, an only child whose father had recently passed away.
Katia didn’t speak English and Harley still doesn’t utter more than a few sentences of Russian, but they are approaching their second anniversary as a pair. They train together for half the year in Sydney, under the Pachins’ supervision, and the other half in Moscow. They’ve had to contend with massive difficulties, financially, socially and emotionally, and they’ve had many twists and turns in their story.
In Taipei City, Taiwan, in March this year, they stunned the figure skating world by capturing the junior title at the world championships, outperforming more fancied pairs from Russia and China to become Australia’s first figure skating world champions. Sitting at home in Rooty Hill, Josie became hysterical. “I cried. I stopped breathing. It was awesome,” she says.
The Australian team’s figure skating co-ordinator, Belinda Noonan, says this is the best of what Australia can offer. “An indigenous boy with ability and a dream, a couple of immigrant coaches and an opportunity for a girl from another country – how wonderful is that”.
Katia, who turns 18 on January 1, became an Australian citizen only last month. It‘s been a whirlwind journey for everyone involved.
As I left the family home at Rooty Hill after our bush banquet, Josie insisted I take a pizza she had just baked – it was loaded with toppings of kangaroo, bush tomatoes and native herbs and spices. She said it was for when I felt hungry on the road.