IN the 14 years he has lived in Newcastle, Kurt Fearnley has risen to become one of our best-known and most-respected citizens, achieving an enormous amount both as a professional athlete and as an advocate for those whose lives must necessarily be lived with a disability.
Now, having won a glittering array of medals in a long and distinguished career as a wheelchair racer, Fearnley is facing his swansong as a national representative, competing at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in his signature event, the marathon, and carrying the honour of being a co-captain of the Australian athletics team.
As Fearnley has remarked in various speeches and interviews over the years, it has been a long and exciting ride from his childhood in Carcoar, a small town about 50 kilometres outside Bathurst.
Born in 1981 with a congenital condition that left him without much of his lower spine, Fearnley is quick to credit others – his parents, his high school sporting teacher and his long-time coach among them – for his success, but the seeds of Fearnley’s prowess come from within.
His achievements are nothing less than extraordinary. The growing attention to “para-sports” in recent years has meant that many young people with disabilities have been able to find a path through life that takes them beyond the limitations that they otherwise would have faced.
Fearnley, as he recounted in his 2014 autobiography, Pushing the Limits, is one of them. But Fearnley is an athlete whose public profile extends beyond his chosen sport. The same dint of personality that made him the person he is today – the man who crawled the Kokoda Track on his hands and knees – has led him to become a fearless advocate for the rights of the disabled.
In an Australia Day speech in 2013, Fearnley gave a rare insight into how he felt about the cards that life had dealt him, describing his wheelchair as “my life ... my independence”. He went on to say, though, that it wasn’t “all about chairs”. Praising the then-new NDIS as a much-needed change, Fearnley looked forward to a time when Australia would “lead the world” in supporting a group of people who were often “marginalised by ... invisibility”.
Kurt Fearnley is many things, but it’s impossible to imagine him ever being invisible. We wish him all the best as he rolls out onto the track once again, an athlete, an idol and an ambassador of hope.