JUSTIN LANGER: Neale Daniher, the Fight MND Big Freeze and what I learnt from this brave champion

Justin Langer
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Justin Langer riding the Big Freeze slide in 2022.
Justin Langer riding the Big Freeze slide in 2022. Credit: AAP

What would Neale do?

These four words have made me smile nearly every day for the last two years.

When I was first invited by Neale Daniher to be a part of the Fight MND Big Freeze at the MCG in 2022, my first reaction was one of utter surprise and humility.

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Of all the people in the world the Daniher family could invite, they asked me. I was completely flattered.

Then, when I found out that Ash Barty, Hamish Blake, Jakara Anthony, Terry Daniher, David Neitz, Eddie Betts, Rhonda Burchmore, Bec Maddern and Andy Maher would be my fellow sliders, I was like an excited schoolboy about to meet my heroes.

Leading up to the event I was recovering from a bout of COVID and the virus had really hit me hard. As the Big Freeze got closer, I felt so unwell that I feared I would have to pull out.

Two days before flying to Melbourne I talked to my manager James Henderson and we both decided it was in my best interests to let the Danihers know I would have to reluctantly withdraw.

But, as I hung up the phone to James, a sense of reality washed over me.

Pull out?” I thought. “Are you serious? Neale has MND and you’re thinking of reneging on a promise because you are tired and have a little sniffle.”

Straight back on the phone, I shared this sentiment with James and said no matter how rough I was feeling, there was no way I was pulling out.

The following day I flew to Melbourne and went straight to my hotel where I slept in a tracksuit, my new beanie and a second jumper. I was feeling really crook.

The next morning, I stayed in bed until the last minute before making my way to the MCG. Feeling miserable, the main thoughts in my mind, besides “What would Neale do?” were, “I’m going to have a heart attack the moment I hit the ice”, or “I’m going to get pneumonia”. The catastrophic mind games were almost too much to bear.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Justin Langer goes down the Freeze MND slide at the MCG in 2022.
Justin Langer goes down the Freeze MND slide at the MCG in 2022. Credit: SCOTT BARBOUR/AAPIMAGE

Dressed in a Rocky Balboa costume I went down the slide and had the time of my life helping a cause that has contributed $97 million in research and care initiatives for motor neurone disease.

I didn’t have a heart attack or die from pneumonia, in fact something really strange happened.

Having to speak at a breakfast back in Perth the following morning, I flew straight home and — to my amazement — I felt like I had found an instant cure to my COVID symptoms.

Now, before I go on, I am obviously not a doctor, and while I have read reams of research on the benefits (or not) of cold-water therapy, what I say next is not medical advice, but rather a simple account of what I found then, and what I feel now.

So succinct was the change in how I was feeling pre and post my mega-ice bath experience at the MCG that I decided to challenge myself to an ice bath, or at the very least, a cold-water practice, every day for a month; a practice that has pretty much extended for the last two years.

I used to joke that the reason I retired from cricket was that I would never have to do a “beep test” (a brutal fitness test) or have an ice bath ever again.

While I admire and respect those courageous souls who take a dip in the ocean all year round, cold water and I have never been the best of friends.

Much as I hate it, the feeling after an ice bath or a ‘cold water therapy’ session, and the effects — placebo or not — have been beneficial. Not necessarily enjoyable, but definitely beneficial.

The funny thing is that before every plunge I ask myself, ‘What would Neale do?’ Every single time, I shake my head, mutter the words and in I go. I then smile and send a silent best wish to the inspiration which is Neale Daniher.

Not only did Neale play for the Essendon Football Club for 11 years but he also coached at various clubs, famously Melbourne and then in roles with Essendon, Fremantle and my beloved West Coast Eagles.

Often on a Sunday night I would see Neale at St Joseph’s Church in Subiaco.

Father Joe Walsh had turned Sunday night Mass into a T20 style of church, where the service went for just over half an hour, rather than the traditional hour. Parishioners flooded in every Sunday night, and I used to think it was very cool to see Neale there saying his prayers.

When I found out about Neale’s MND diagnosis I didn’t know much about the disease, except that it wasn’t going to be much fun.

When I was head coach of Western Australia cricket and the Perth Scorchers I had a quote on my office wall at the WACA which said: “The s... I go through today, is the fertiliser of tomorrow.”

That quote sits nicely with the MND battle.

“Fight MND” — synonymous today with the blue beanies and the Big Freeze ice plunge at the MCG — was set up by Neale and his family and friends after his diagnosis in 2013. Their charity is an inspirational example of building something good out of a catastrophic realization. The fertilizer from s..., if you like.

In his heart-warming book, When All Is Said & Done, Neale writes: “A wise man said, ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’. I understand the wisdom of this — right now, I don’t have much “forwards’ left.”

Neale has dedicated his “forward” time to help fight what he calls, “The Beast, a horrible and debilitating disease which gradually takes away the patient’s use of their arms and legs, their ability to eat and swallow, their speech, and ultimately their ability to breathe . . . all in an average timeframe of just 27 months”.

Last Sunday, former England and Leeds Rhinos rugby league player Rob Burrow, who was diagnosed with MND in 2019, died at the tender age of 41.

He, like Neale, raised millions for the community and research by bravely sharing his journey with the public.

In a heart-wrenching image that has gone viral, Rob Burrow’s former teammate Kevin Sinfield carried his best mate over the finish line of the 2023 Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon.

In Neale’s case, his daughter Bec, a wonderful human being and “voice” for her Dad, is like a Kevin Sinfield; a beautiful reminder to us all, that in this world we can never create magic alone.

In the chapter of his book titled Letter To My Grandchildren, Neale writes: “Life can be tough, you will have your hurdles and setbacks, you’ll hit potholes and dead ends, you’ll have to make detours. That’s all part of the journey. When those things happen, I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed or to become a victim, I want you to learn a bit of grit, a bit of resilience, because life is no bed of roses. So, my wish for you is that you can conduct yourself in the right way, in the face of those difficulties.”

On each of the Fight MND’s beanies is a small badge which says: “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”

In 11 years of enduring “The Beast” which is MND, Neale is a stirring illustration of deeds over words, and I am certain his family, including his grandchildren, will be immensely proud of his actions in the face of unimaginable adversity.

As they are, so am I.

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