The former swimming golden girl shares the truth about the domestic violence that plagued her upbringing and still haunts her family to this day
The former swimming golden girl shares the truth about the domestic violence that plagued her upbringing and still haunts her family to this day

Lisa Curry reveals dramatic details of abusive childhood

ON THESE crisp autumn mornings, when sunrays break through the morning mist surrounding her home and birdsong fills the fresh Sunshine Coast hinterland air, Lisa Curry sits and counts her blessings.

The idyllic 24ha property near Maleny she shares with husband of two years, entertainer Mark Tabone, is perhaps one of more spectacular places to isolate in a global pandemic.

Curry, 58, our former golden girl of the swimming pool, is enjoying a period of both professional and personal fulfilment.

Former swimming champion Lisa Curry. Picture: Ross Coffey.
Former swimming champion Lisa Curry. Picture: Ross Coffey.

Her wellness, health and fitness business is expanding, with plans underway to redevelop her property to host glamping retreats for a range of interests including yoga, bootcamp, adventure, even boutique weddings. Health workshops will also be available. It's an extension of her Happy Healthy You business, launched in 2014, that now has 300,000 women as members in private Facebook groups and employs 17 staff.

Curry has also recently confronted some loose ends in her family life. Featured in an upcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, an SBS program delving into the ancestral past of well-known Australians, Curry says she finally found closure around issues to do with her late father, Roy, a successful Gold Coast real estate businessman, who died in 2015 aged 83.

Lisa Curry with her partner Mark Tabone who is a hairdresser and celebrity impersonator. Picture: Dylan Robinson
Lisa Curry with her partner Mark Tabone who is a hairdresser and celebrity impersonator. Picture: Dylan Robinson

Curry's parents divorced when she was 15. She says she loved her father but their relationship became "distant''. She says he only watched her swim three times in her illustrious career that saw her compete in two world championships (Berlin 1978, Ecuador 1982), three Olympic Games (Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984 and Barcelona 1992) and three Commonwealth Games (Edmonton 1978, Brisbane 1982 and Auckland 1990). She won a total of 53 medals including 24 gold.

Curry reveals domestic violence was part of her childhood. "There was quite a few years where we had pretty horrific domestic violence in our household,'' Curry says.

"As children (with siblings Scott, 61, a classical musician who lives in Berlin and Melanie, 54, an artist living in northern NSW) we would witness the fights and Dad hitting Mum, and the bruises. Mum always said, 'I've got three kids and a grand piano … where am I going to go?' She couldn't leave.

"It's all very, very personal. Dad has passed away but Mum [Pat, 85] is still here.''

Curry says while she has been able to put that part of her childhood behind her, her experience is not necessarily the same as that of her siblings. "We all deal with things that happened in our life differently. I chose not to let it affect me. I've been able to move on,'' Curry says. "My sister and I have very different ideas on our childhood and things that happened in our family.

"You can grow up in the same family and have a completely different experience from that upbringing.''

Research from WDYTYA? revealed Curry has strong German heritage on her mother's side and Irish blood from her father's side. She travelled to Ireland for the program and found the experience emotional but "beautiful''.

She reveals she was "not allowed'' to speak at her father's funeral, a point she realised still hurt her. She took some of her father's ashes with her to Ireland and scattered some in Dublin's River Liffey and some in "beautiful green rolling hills by the ocean''.

"We all got some ashes after he (my father) died and I kept mine … I just hung onto them. When this opportunity came up, it was just perfect to finish it off,'' she says.

"I wrapped the box of ashes in one of Dad's shirts, which is all I got (after he died), and he flew business class with me over to Ireland, which is how he would have liked it.

"It was really hard to do it (spread the ashes).

"You think you've dealt with it, but, obviously, I hadn't. It was hard because I wasn't allowed to speak at his funeral and that was my only opportunity to actually say what I wanted to say. It affected me more than I thought.''

Last year, Curry formalised her backing of Hairdressers with Hearts, a not-for-profit charity providing support for family and domestic violence including elder abuse.

It trains hairdressers and barbers to provide advice and referrals, harnessing the "intimate and trusted'' relationship between hairdressers and their clients.

"I wasn't personally hurt at all but I hurt for my mum,'' Curry says. "It's difficult because I still live with how my mum has to deal with it.

"I do see my mum suffer still. She is 85 and still sees a psychologist. I know it [domestic violence] affects people for a long, long time.''

After retiring from swimming in 1992, Curry competed in surf boat rowing and world championship outrigger canoeing.

Lisa Curry competed in outrigging and kayaking. Picture: Jamie Hanson
Lisa Curry competed in outrigging and kayaking. Picture: Jamie Hanson

She received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1994, the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2008 and was National Australia Day Council chair from 2000 to 2008.

In 2008, she underwent surgery for a heart condition called myocarditis, believed to be from a viral infection. She was fitted with an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) - a pacemaker and defibrillator in one that detects abnormal heart rhythms and delivers a shock to restore a normal heartbeat.

On New Year's Day 2020, with a resolution "to slow the heck down'', she ended up in a Melbourne hospital after she woke up unable to breathe properly. Curry says she is "really allergic to a lot of things - plants, grass, things in the air, dust''. With bushfires at the time sending high levels of particulates into the air and with her heart history, Curry went straight to hospital where she was admitted overnight. However, no clear reason was found for her breathing difficulty.

"I just couldn't breathe properly. It is an awful feeling to not be able to get a breath in,'' she says. "I have a defibrillator so I just need to be really careful so I spent a night in hospital but everything is fine.''

Curry was previously married to former Ironman surf lifesaver and Olympic bronze medallist Grant Kenny, who is the father of their three children - Jaimi, 33, a nurse, Morgan, 29, a personal trainer (and former dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris), and Jett, 25, a model and Ironman competitor. Curry and Kenny split in 2009 after 23 years of marriage.

Wedding of Morgan Kenny and Ryan Gruell at Noosa. (Left to right) Jaimi Lee Kenny, Ryan Gruell, Morgan Kenny, Grant Kenny, Lisa Curry and Jett Kenny. Picture: Facebook
Wedding of Morgan Kenny and Ryan Gruell at Noosa. (Left to right) Jaimi Lee Kenny, Ryan Gruell, Morgan Kenny, Grant Kenny, Lisa Curry and Jett Kenny. Picture: Facebook

Curry has written six health and fitness books and has online fitness programs called KISS 10 Week Weight Loss (with programs also called Strength, Sculpt and Swim).

Curry has been involved in other television programs over the years, including The Celebrity Apprentice Australia in 2011. In 2017, she spent nearly six weeks in the African jungle for reality show I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here and last year she was a participant in The All New Monty: Ladies Night.

Curry says her latest WDYTYA? venture left her feeling "more Irish than ever'', despite admitting, somewhat ashamedly, she had never really thought very much about her ancestry before.

"The amount that I have learned gives me a real insight into why I do some of the things that I do, how I do them and what person you have to be to be able to do them,'' she says.

"On the last night (in Ireland), the producer and I went into an Irish pub and had a few beers - maybe one too many. There was a guy singing and another guy on the violin.

"I went up to the singer and told him what I had done that day and that I had spread my dad's ashes. I asked him to play me a happy song with lots of fiddle in it for my dad. It went for six minutes and it was amazing. The bar was just going off and it was all for my dad.''

Curry, who became tearful several times in the episode, says she is naturally an emotional person, though this is not often portrayed in her public persona of champion swimmer.

"It's fairly normal for me to be emotional but a lot of people don't see that … I come across as really strong - which I am - but it's a case of strong on the outside, soft as a pussycat on the inside,'' she says.

"I knew Dad was proud of me … I knew that, but he didn't get to experience the moments that made him proud.

"Being such a successful businessman and knowing what it takes to get to the top, I'm surprised and saddened that he didn't see me in all my glory. To only see me swim a couple of times, is kind of disappointing. I also understand he was busy and was working but, when you really think about it, a parent should make the effort to be there for their children.

"My mum was there for pretty much every single race and, as a parent myself, I want to be there for all my kids' victories and failures, every single one of them.''

Overall, Curry was so positively affected by her experience, she now has a permanent reminder of her Irish roots with a new three-leaf clover tattoo on her wrist.

"I felt so connected to Ireland all of a sudden and I've never felt like that before, ever,''
she says.

"I got a three-leaf clover, not a four-leaf one because I believe you don't get luck, you make your own.''

 

The 'retreat barn' at former swimming star Lisa Curry's Sunshine Coast hinterland home.
The 'retreat barn' at former swimming star Lisa Curry's Sunshine Coast hinterland home.

It is what Curry calls the "unexpected'' relation ship. Happiness seems to be blooming with husband Tabone, 54, a former hairdresser and tribute artist who impersonates several characters - Elvis and Tom Jones (Curry's favourites), John Lennon, Austin Powers, Jim Morrison, Buddy Holly and Dean Martin.

Curry and Tabone initially connected over an online conversation about Volkswagen Kombi vehicles (they both own Kombis). They married on their Sunshine Coast property in 2018.

Tabone, a man of many talents, is not only a skilled handyman, he also keeps Curry's hair styled and coloured.

"It's all unexpected but he's the most amazing, beautiful man,'' Curry says. "He's very handy on the tools … he's rebuilt some of the buildings here and it's great for what we are doing with redeveloping the property.

"And then at night time he does my foils in my hair. He was a hairdresser for 20 years.''

Curry and Tabone's planned retreat will be called Mali Retreat (a mix of Mark and Lisa's names). Its opening date is dependent on current pandemic restrictions.

"Mark and I are fine. We're on 60 acres [24ha], so we're kind of isolated all the time anyway,'' she says. "As soon as isolation is eased off and people can move around, we'll be starting retreats up here.''

With Happy Healthy You, Curry has already established a business model to cope with work-from-home rules. Curry's business partner is naturopath Jeff Butterworth, who is based in Mauritius. Their staff are based in Australia, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Clients are mostly from Australia but some are also in New Zealand, England, Europe, Canada and America.

"It's all online so it doesn't matter where you are in the world, you can still be available to do the job. Everyone works from home anyway. Unknowingly, it's the perfect set-up for the current situation with the virus.''

Curry is also relishing her role of "granny'' to her two-year-old grandson Flynn, from daughter Morgan and son-in-law Ryan Gruell.

Lisa and Grant Curry with grandson Flynn. Picture: Instagram
Lisa and Grant Curry with grandson Flynn. Picture: Instagram

She looks after the little boy on average twice a week.

"I absolutely love it,'' Curry says.

"I still get to see him because I look after him when Morgan is working and her husband is away when he works. So lucky Granny gets to look after him which is great.

"When I go over, he puts his arms out and runs towards me and says, 'Granny!' It's so cute.

"And when I show Flynn the (clover) tattoo I got for my dad, he now says, 'Papa in heaven'.''

Curry and Tabone share their piece of paradise, which has a swimming pool and a gym, with four cows: Elvis, Joey (named after Curry's former swim coach Joe King and Mark's father Joe), Coco, and Elsy (a play on Curry's initials of LC). There are also resident geese, ducks, ducklings and chooks.

Of an afternoon, Curry is often out on the ride-on mower. "This property is an amazing place, it's so beautiful,'' she says.

"In the mornings, the fog can be all around the house and the sun shines through and the birds are singing.

"During this isolation period we are very lucky and very grateful that we have this amazing place to spend our days.''

Who Do You Think You Are? begins Tuesday, 7.30pm, SBS. Lisa Curry's episode is on June 9

*For 24-hour domestic violence support call the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or MensLine on 1800 600 636.

Originally published as Lisa Curry reveals dramatic details of abusive childhood