NICK TAYLOR, The West Australian
February 5, 2011, 10:10 am
Western Force hooker Nathan Charles is a young professional sportsman at the peak of fitness, with a long career ahead of him and at the top of his chosen sport.
Already a Force fixture after just one season in one of the sport's hardest and most physically demanding positions, he was called into the Wallaby training squad before last year's northern hemisphere tour.
He will long be remembered for his sensational length-of-the-field run that set up the try that took the Force to a famous victory over the powerful Crusaders last year.
But what makes his achievements as an elite sportsman most remarkable is that he has done it all while carrying the weight of knowledge that he has a potentially fatal disease with no known cure.
Until now only his family and a small group of close friends knew that Nathan Charles has cystic fibrosis. Not even Force teammates knew he had a disease that brings with it a life expectancy of just 37 years.
But now the 22-year-old, the only professional playing rugby with cystic fibrosis, has spoken for the first time about his battle to overcome the disease.
"I'm one of the fortunate ones, fortunate to have a mild category," he said. "A lot of kids don't survive."
He has been made national ambassador for Cystic Fibrosis Australia and is using his Western Force profile to promote awareness of the disease, having turned down the offer two years ago because he did not feel ready for the role.
"At the time I didn't feel comfortable discussing it publicly," he said. "I've always kept it private, and I didn't feel I was in a position to make a difference.
"Now I feel I am.
"I want to let people know how CF affects my life, how I live my daily life, make people aware of the disease and how they can support (the fight against) it.
"I want to do everything I can to raise awareness. The more funds I can raise the more research can be done and hopefully cures can be found."
But there is one thing he insists on: "I want to be known as Nathan Charles the rugby player that has CF not the guy who has CF that plays rugby," he said.
In his early days, Charles' family helped with the physiotherapy needed to keep his lungs clear, but he firmly believes his current life- style and the encouragement his parents gave him to play sport helped him in his fight against the disease.
"I was encouraged to play every sport there was and that was the smartest thing, getting me moving all the time."
He didn't have much time to sit on the lounge watching TV. "I was outside in the pool, running around, playing tennis. I played mixed netball, softball, AFL, league, union, water polo.
"If we had a party my mum would always make me blow up the balloons. They always encouraged me to play a wind instrument so when I was younger I brought home a saxophone one weekend and blew the daylights out of it until my dad got sick of it.
"Now I'm fortunate enough to be in a professional environment. That substitutes having to do all the physiotherapy that I had to do as a kid. It's the reason I am healthy.
"I have a milder case but I could be a lot sicker. Even if you have a mild case it can deteriorate if you don't look after yourself."
He still needs medication, up to 10 tablets a day, needs to keep up his salt levels and sometimes has to use a breathing mask that opens the airways and builds lung capacity.
He cannot be in close contact with other CF sufferers because of the risk of cross infection.
"CF does not affect the way I live my life. I live it the same as anyone else," he said.
"I just have to be cautious. I can have a good time. If I want to have a beer with the boys I can."
Force head coach Richard Graham was aware that Charles suffered from CF but it did not deter the club from offering him a contract last season.
"You have to admire the way Nathan has never used it as an excuse. To his credit he manages it exceptionally well," he said.
"Anyone who has seen Nathan train over the last 12 months has to admire his development."
Under the Force fitness regime Charles will be going into this year's Super Rugby season at 106kg - but he wasn't always so beefy.
"I'm an unusual case," he said. "If you see a CF person they'll be quite thin, they won't have much on them. When I was younger the doctor said I was underweight, and this sounds really unorthodox, but he said to put on weight so if I really did get sick I was kind of protected.
"I went to the other extreme and went overweight. Now I've found the happy medium. The more active I am the better I feel."
Cystic Fibrosis WA chief executive Nigel Barker said Charles was an inspiration to the 330 children and young adults living with CF in WA and their parents and carers.
"While CF presents itself over a range of severity and not everyone can play for the Western Force or Australia, Nathan's example has lifted the spirits and expectations of many of our children and young adults who can strive to be the best that they can be," he said.
"Nathan is an elite athlete supporting our work. His self-discipline and strict adherence to his training and diet have paid dividends."
Charles has started his own website to lift awareness of CF: www.nathancharles.com.au
Cystic Fibrosis is one of the most common life-threatening recessive genetic disease conditions for which there is no known cure.
There is a one in 25 chance of carrying the gene. Most people are not aware they carry it until they meet another carrier and have a child with CF.
Babies are diagnosed with the condition soon after birth. It affects a number of organs in the body especially the lungs and pancreas.