TV

Chris Harris' motivation for signing up to Dancing With The Stars

Born eight weeks premature, twin Louie thrived, but little Phoebe struggled from the start.

By Lynley Ward

Cricket legend Chris Harris' little daughter Phoebe just can't resist clambering on the cauldron-sized boulders lining the path of a Christchurch reserve, effortlessly bounding from one giant weathered stone to the next.

Twin brother Louie joins in, the fleet-footed pair chatting while they jump, prompting a warning from mum Linda to watch their step and not to get their clothes dirty!

It's a familiar scene. A pair of eight-year-olds playing outside in a park after school. Except it isn't when you realise the Dancing with the Stars contestant's youngest daughter has a form of cerebral palsy called hemiplegia, which limits her ability to use her left side, after she was starved of oxygen at birth.

Faced with a raft of disabilities affecting her arm, leg, sight, speech and even internal organs, this wee battler, who was a tiny 1.3kg at birth, is defying the odds, although you'd be hard-pressed to see there is anything amiss.

But Chris, 48, and Linda, 52, are quick to laud Conductive Education – the small health charity that teaches children and adults with a range of disabilities the skills to meet everyday challenges – saying the programme has made a world of difference to their girl from the moment she was welcomed into the Christchurch centre at six months old.

As ambassador, Chris says he's incredibly grateful the dancing show has given him a chance to raise the profile and much-needed funds for the organisation.

Chris in action for the Black Caps at Eden Park in 1994.
Chris in action for the Black Caps at Eden Park in 1994.

"I've seen all the good work they've done with Phoebe and so many others that are in a similar situation, and some children with even more difficult disabilities," tells Chris, who recently wowed judges with his high-scoring paso doble and waltz.

"I guess I'm blessed and proud to help Conductive Education through Dancing with the Stars. Even if it only helps one more child, I just know the effect it will have on not just that child, but their family."

Admitting performing on live national TV is nothing short of terrifying, Chris is easily clocking up 20 hours a week in the studio with dance partner Vanessa Cole, learning new routines and flying to Auckland ahead of the live shows.

Born eight weeks premature, Louie thrived, but little Phoebe struggled from the start.
Born eight weeks premature, Louie thrived, but little Phoebe struggled from the start.

And while he might be petrified, he confesses he loves the experience, saying, "Deep down, everyone's got a bit of dancer inside of them. It's something you always thought you'd love to learn but time never allowed."

Taking a break to chat to Woman's Day, Chris tells us why he puts himself under the stress and scrutiny of not just the judging panel but the entire nation as well.

"If you were to meet Phoebe now, most people wouldn't know she had any issues," he explains. "That's the reason Conductive is so dear to my heart because they had a massive role in maximising her ability in her disability."

Phoebe in the neonatal unit at Christchurch Women's Hospital.
Phoebe in the neonatal unit at Christchurch Women's Hospital.

Linda says from the outset, her vulnerable baby daughter struggled, while twin brother Louie went from strength to strength. It was 18 months before Phoebe could sit up on her own.

The devoted mum-of-three wells up with tears recounting the day her darling daughter surprised her by accomplishing a major milestone when she came to pick her up at the end of a session."She couldn't ride a bike because she could only push down on one side," recalls Linda.

"It took a lot to learn the motion and they worked with her for months. Then one day, the staff said, 'Come on, Mummy, we've been waiting for you.' The next thing, she biked through the door with this big smile on her face, and everybody just clapped and cheered her on. It was a really important moment for her and us."

It's all the more remarkable given Phoebe's therapy was curtailed for two years when the family shifted to Zimbabwe after the Christchurch quakes to join Chris at his coaching job. "We didn't have anything there and I watched her deteriorate and become more symptomatic," says Linda.

Once back in Christchurch, the sessions resumed and Phoebe hasn't looked back, following in the footsteps of talented sister Sophie, 16, by taking up ballet and not shying away from demanding sporting challenges.

"She likes to bike and run. She even did the Weetbix Tryathlon this year. We didn't expect her to finish, but she's really motivated – that comes from the conductive thinking – and she finished it," tells Linda, adding they notice tell-tale signs of a drooping foot when she becomes stressed or tired.

Despite Phoebe's tough start to life, she's thriving with a can-do attitude and using strategies to cope with her difficulties. And the little girl inspiring international all-rounder Chris to take on this daunting challenge just loves seeing her dad on TV every Sunday and Monday night.

Says Phoebe, "I feel proud for him. I have a big smile when I watch him."

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