Sport

Champion wheelchair athlete Kurt Fearnley on turning a disability into a strength. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: OLAF BALLNUS

Marathon man: Kurt Fearnley, 34, wheelchair athlete

My community made sure they were going to give me everything that I needed to be normal. A working-class community raised $10,000 to get me my first chair. Carcoar will always have that place in my heart.

It would have been very different without a chair. I’ve seen what happens to the two-thirds of the world who don’t have chairs. Their trajectory is quite different. If you don’t have the facilities or the ability to interact with community or the environment in a way that’s free, that’s the thing that becomes your disability. 

My family let me have so much independence. The thing they created was just a calm and a safe environment. Me running around paddocks to get cuts and bruises and scratches, but really just finding out who I was.

Being a father has made me vulnerable to a degree I couldn’t have felt previously. The moment you have a little baby, just 100 per cent reliant on you and your partner, there’s fear associated with that. But then also with that comes levels of joy I was yet to experience, I’ve found some of the most incredible moments, some of the most amazing experiences.

The strongest part of a human is mental strength. The ability to handle their environment can come and go, but that resilience you have in you, that’s forever. You can be extremely vulnerable but also know that you are extremely strong. 

I have broken. And then you kind of just put it back together. And you never, ever hold it against yourself. Twenty years of building up physical strength – sometimes you do it so much that it feels like you’re just ripping yourself to pieces. The time when you break, you do find yourself. But sometimes you just can’t see through whatever it is you’re feeling at that time. Fortunately, I’ve had people who have reminded me that I’m building something special. Or I’ve been able to sit back at that point and look at the bigger picture. Regroup and start again. 

Writing my book [Pushing the Limits] was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Kokoda was just brutal. Brutal. I was dragging myself through mud and it was an incredible experience, just rough on your body. I started that trek at 53 kilos, seven days after the New York marathon, and I finished at 46. But as an athlete you don’t usually reflect on the whole journey. An extended period of time trying to really dig into emotional moments – that was a hell of a journey, too. What did I learn? You can pick a handful of people who have changed your life. And I think you’re fairly grateful about those people.

You can’t be content. That’s a mentality that athletes need. You need to be able to want it again and to want more. I accept that that’s part of it, but it’s still a bit funny.

I’ve spent 25 years of my life in sport. You need to make sure there is a larger impact on the community than just the results. I’m a true believer in sport; I love it. It’s the one thing that gives a kid from Carcoar crawling around the bush a place on the world stage. It gives a young kid from Arnhem Land or from even the most remote communities in our country the opportunity to take on the world.

I’ve had a great run in wheelchair racing – but that’s not who I am. I am that struggle, you know. I don’t think hardship’s bad. I think hardship is an essential part of life, that you have to really just engage with it and go through it, feel disappointment and be allowed to feel disappointment.

Disability can be strength within our community. It can be beautiful, because it’s a natural part of life. We’re all heading down different paths towards lessened mobility. If we make adjustments to our community to allow disability into it, we will be all so much better for it. We’ve overlooked disability for 30 years. We’ve already got to a place that’s embarrassing. We are at the bottom of the OECD in how we treat disability. Rectifying it should be our major priority.

This week’s highlights…

• Horseracing: Epsom Day

Saturday, 1st race 12.15pm (AEST), Royal Randwick, Sydney

• AFL: Grand final – Hawthorn v West Coast Eagles

Saturday, 2.30pm (AEST), Melbourne Cricket Ground

• NRL: Grand final – Brisbane Broncos v North Qld Cowboys 

Sunday, 7.15pm (AEDT), ANZ Stadium, Sydney

• Rugby: World Cup – Scotland v South Africa

Sunday, 1.45am (AEST), St James’ Park, Newcastle upon Tyne

Australia v England 

Sunday, 6am (AEDT), Twickenham, London

• Golf: Presidents Cup

Thursday - October 11, Songdo IBD, Incheon City, South Korea

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Marathon man". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.