Portrait

Newly crowned Australian sports personality of 2014 Kurt Fearnley on what powers him home. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Why Paralympian Kurt Fearnley is poetry in motion

His upper body is exquisitely sculpted: a chiselled compromise between the broad power of Rodin’s The Thinker and the streamlined sinew of Michelangelo’s David. Underneath his thin cotton T-shirt, the rounded contours where arm meets shoulder are balls of dense muscle. This bearer’s plural deltoidei have careered him through the concrete streets of New York at world-record speed. They have elevated him to balance on sandpapered fingertips above other people’s vomit on a salt-sprayed yacht deck, as part of a winning Sydney-to-Hobart sailing crew. These shoulders have helped drag their master 96 kilometres over mud-sludge, rock and undergrowth to crawl a Kokoda Track many of us would struggle to complete walking.

Kurt Fearnley’s powerful shoulders came into the world last, balding newborn head tucked tightly into them. Born feet-first, and without the lower portion of his spine, the birth attendants hurried to wrap him in a towel to shield his unusually short legs from his mother, until they’d better prepared her. From day dot, Kurt Fearnley has done things the most difficult way.  

When I meet up with the Paralympic champion two weeks fresh from his fifth New York marathon win, I tell him my theory about birth stories, and their potential impact on the people we become. I tell him about my own labours: 35 won’t-be-hurried-by-anyone hours for the laid-back son, five intense hours for the take-no-prisoners daughter.

“I never thought about it like that,” Fearnley says, skin crinkling round the corners of his warm grey-green eyes. “That I came into the world backwards, legs broken, fighting to be alive. Yeah. I like it.” He flashes a devastatingly handsome smile. 

Women have rung up radio stations when Fearnley’s on air, asking if he’ll marry their daughters. It’s not just because he’s a world-class athlete, with all of the celebrity that entails. In person, Fearnley’s an immediately amiable combination of best-friend frankness, big-brother larrikin and favourite-uncle wisdom. 

A fortnight before our meeting I watched on television, as Fearnley’s wheelchair crossed the finishing line in his latest win. The man now in front of me, calmly sipping from a white porcelain cup of honeyed green tea, is not Racing Fearnley: dripping sweat and determination, mouth open in triumphant roar above his three-wheeled chariot, racing jersey emblazoned with the words Yes, You Can. I ask Fearnley about this dichotomy, about the danger faced by elite sportspeople of athletic aggression spilling into the everyday. “It’s not real,” he says. “You create that person you have to be for those few weeks, or months, to win the race and get the job done.”

There’s a photo of Kurt at the finishing line, taken moments after the adrenalin-pumped teeth-grit has subsided. The racer’s grazed arm is outstretched upward. His black racing glove has been cast aside. The calloused fingers of his bare hand are gently splayed across the soft head of his rosy-cheeked seven-month-old son, Harry, who stares down at his dad from his mother’s arms. When Fearnley talks about “the little fella”, his words are tender, unguarded. His own kid’s birth story, he says, is that he took a long time to arrive, facing the wrong way. “Whatever he does, you won’t see it coming,” I declare. “Whatever it is, he’ll take a bloody long time to do it,” Fearnley laughs. 

Family is what’s real to the country boy from Carcoar, in NSW’s Central West. When Kurt speaks about the blood brothers, assorted mates, and Papua New Guinean porters who guided him for 10 painful, searing hot days as he crawled Kokoda, his voice wavers. He averts his eyes, scratches his closely trimmed beard, pauses. “My boys,” he says, closing his eyes for just a second. “What they did for me … they did things like clean the mud from inside my nose, y’know? Things that my mother would have done for me when I was growing up. You don’t forget. You don’t forget that kind of stuff.” 

On his way back from Kokoda, an Australian airline refused to let Fearnley take his wheelchair to the departure gate. They insisted it be checked in, and that he use one of the clunky airport chairs instead, which would have necessitated someone else pushing the chair. Fearnley argued. The airline wouldn’t budge. The world-class athlete with an Order of Australia, the gold-medal winning Paralympian who had just crawled the Kokoda Track, made his own way through the crowds, pulling himself towards the gates over the grubby terminal floor. Fearnley spoke out about the incident and the appalling indignities suffered by Australians with disabilities due to lack of infrastructure and understanding. The public turned. The media camped on Fearnley’s doorstep. Those who’d doted on him as a world-champion athlete branded him a whinger. Fearnley dimmed the lights in his house, screened calls to his home.

“That’s a very Australian attitude,” I observe. “Y’know, be grateful for what you have, be quiet, don’t make a fuss.” Fearnley’s nostrils flare ever so slightly. The angry grey edges of his irises overtake the green. “There are still people who think it’s fantastic that I’m out in the supermarket doing my shopping on my own,” says the man who boarded a plane alone at 14, to pursue his sporting dream.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Poetry in motion". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.