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News Source: The Courier-Mail (9th October 2007)
by Glenis Green
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SHEDDING her trademark khakis, it was a poised and powerful Terri Irwin who stepped in front of Queensland's business glitterati this week to claim her state Business Woman of the Year award for her role as the director of Australia Zoo.

At the same time she also symbolically shed some of the tags which have identified her for years - no longer was she just the wife of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin or his grieving widow, nor just the mother of pocket wildlife warrior and mini-celebrity Bindi.

Always in the background - always encouraging, supporting and sometimes defending her larrikin husband and precocious daughter - the old Terri Irwin was like a lioness, content to ensure everything ran smoothly while taking the lowest profile in the pride. But Steve's death 13 months ago in a fatal stingray encounter changed everything, thrusting Terri into a solo spotlight she never wanted in the quickest and worst possible way.

Now the new Terri Irwin has definitely emerged. But from the moment she was born in Eugene, Oregon in the US on July 20, 1964, Terri has always had a thread of steel running through her.

From starting her own "Cougar Country" animal rehabilitation facility at the age of 22 while she was still working in father Clarence Raines's trucking business, to joining a veterinary hospital as a vet technician three years later, Terri proved early on that she was tough and also had remarkable business acumen.

She has always told The Courier-Mail that her chance meeting with Steve Irwin in 1991 at what was then the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park at Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast was destiny.

From there it was a fairytale ride to international stardom with Steve whooping and crikeying his way in trademark Aussie style at the front end of the crocodile while Terri hung on to its rudder-like tail, steering the steady course.

They were the perfect team. He was blond, buffed, brave and hyped to the max while she was the beautiful but strong grounding influence. They even produced the perfect pigeon-pair children - Bindi, now 9 and Robert, a tousle-haired Steve mini-me who will turn four in December.

Picking up the Telstra Queensland Business Woman of the Year award this week was a validation of her many years behind the scenes helping to grow Australia Zoo and the Irwin empire, and the remarkable achievements of just the last year.

These include lifting the zoo itself to more than 550 staff and more than a million visitors a year while at the same time overseeing its multimillion-dollar expansion; fulfilling her husband's dream to start a whale-watching business; launching daughter Bindi's television, performing and fashion career; driving Wildlife Warriors Worldwide to new heights as well as starting work on what will be the world's biggest animal hospital on the zoo's grounds; and even working tirelessly to turn the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in far north Queensland into a reality.

"I still have that kind of cheeky competitiveness with Steve and I was really lucky as a kid because my dad always believed I could do anything that I wanted," she said. "And then Steve believed I could do things that I never thought I could.

"And when times are hard and I'm feeling particularly down I fall back on that competitive nature and I have that feeling that I'm going to show him, I'm going to make him proud."

Terri said learning to prioritise was the key to running a successful business, saying: "It's amazing that once you put family first and give back to the community and work on things that you truly believe in, everything really does fall into place".

Ironically, for someone who was never the least bit interested in claiming any competing titles when Steve was alive, Terri has now carved her own niche on worldwide websites with a funky new title - "The Crocodile Huntress".

It wasn't what she wanted - in fact in the months before Steve's death she had been deliberately stepping back from the spotlight to take more time to enjoy her children and family.

But for a woman who has jumped on the back end of a thrashing crocodile more times than she can count, getting on with the job of keeping the Irwin legacy alive was always what Mrs Irwin was going to do if the going got tough.

As she once joked in her typical dry-humour fashion: "I'm the woman in front of the man - you know, behind every great woman there is a great man".

"Not long after we were married Steve said 'if anything happens to me, promise to keep the zoo running'," Terri said on the eve of the anniversary of his death last month.

"It wasn't an enormous commitment at the time. With only 10 staff and four acres, I readily agreed to keep Australia Zoo going and growing.

"I never imagined tragedy would strike.

"Steve left behind an extraordinary legacy which I will ensure lives on forever."

Terri is now in the running for the national Business Woman of the Year award to be announced next month.

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