AFTER bearing the flag of his nation in a moment of great personal importance during the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, Kurt Fearnley was even-handed as the outrage flared over television coverage that barely featured the event.
It is a testament to the man, on Monday night named NSW Australian of the Year, that he shifted the momentum of that public anger towards places it could do good.
“If we’re going to fire up, … there’s so many reasons that we could be firing up right now,” he said amid the uproar.
Fearnley’s career glitters with gold, silver and bronze medals from the world stage, but it also gleams with a kindness and passionate advocacy.
That kindness shone through as he returned from crawling the 96-kilometre Kokoda Track and refused to use an inappropriate wheelchair after a policy forced him to check his own. Even in his criticism of the policy, Fearnley praised airline staff. His willingness to draw attention to his own predicament heightened awareness among many, many others.
Only a handful of Australians will trace the Kokoda Track, or help sail in the Sydney to Hobart. Fewer will do both, and almost none while competing on the world stage and advocating for us all to do better.
Fearnley was chosen for his latest accolade from four finalists, three hailing from the Hunter. Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy and Knights dual premiership winner and brain cancer advocate Mark Hughes were shortlisted beside Fearnley and Kogarah robotics researcher Sala Sukkarieh.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard has been clear about the weight McCarthy’s efforts carried in the decision to pursue a royal commission into church abuse that culminated in a national apology just weeks ago. Her unflinching commitment to speak truth to power about even the darkest of secrets, has delivered long-denied acknowledgement and justice to many.
And reigning Newcastle Citizen of the Year Hughes turned a personal diagnosis that would rattle any of us into a $10 million force for fighting the insidious disease.
As a region we should be proud of this trio individually, as well as collectively.
At the end of his professional sporting career earlier this year, the finish line of the marathon at the joint Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Fearnley offered a few words that carry.
“If I can say anything to the next people coming up wearing the green and gold, when you get near a microphone, when you speak, err on the side of kindness … and if you can get here, bring your family with you, bring people with you because it makes it so much more worthwhile,” he said.
If that can be the guiding light of how we consider success in this country, we will all be richer for it.