Determination. Strength. Resilience. A bit of Aussie larrikin. A lot of inner steel.
These are the things that define Kurt Fearnley, not the racing wheelchair that seems an extension of his body, nor the non-functioning section of his lower spine and sacrum he was born with in the central western NSW town of Cowra 37 years ago.
He showed all these qualities in his final representative race for Australia on the last morning of the Commonwealth Games, producing a fairytale finish to win in front of a home crowd — including his wife Sheridan and their two children — in the T54 marathon.
An emotional Fearnley described the feeling of victory as “bloody awesome, mate.”
“Just back there, when you see the emotion on your family’s face, just sharing that with people, it’s full-on,” he said.
“The thought that you can be a part of people feeling so much joy … it’s just, it’s just overwhelming.”
Fearnley grew up in the town of Carcoar, west of Bathurst, surrounded by a big supportive family — a typical kid with energy to spare, he spent plenty of time crawling around the hills surrounding the town.
Coming from a competitive family — one uncle, Terry Fearnley, coached Australia’s national rugby league side the Kangaroos, while another uncle, Royce Simmons, won an NRL premiership with Penrith in 1991 — it was never surprising that Kurt would end up as a sportsman.
He had his first race at the age of 14 in a normal everyday wheelchair.
His talent and willpower was apparent early, so much so that the people of Carcoar dug deep and raised $10,000 to buy him a racing chair, and send him overseas to a wheelchair racing competition in the United States.
After early struggles he never looked back as his career went from strength to strength, but Fearnley has in a sense been paying back the generosity and support from the townspeople ever since — not just with his incredible achievements but in the way he goes about things, an old-fashioned determination to do his best, to fight through the pain barrier and to be the same in defeat as in victory.
In 1999, the year before his first Paralympics, Fearnley was training on the road with a group of wheelchair racers in Switzerland when he lost control and collided with an oncoming car, breaking his nose and breaking his leg.
He beat the odds to recover and take part in the demonstration 1,500m event at the Sydney Olympics, then won two medals at the Paralympics that followed.
A self-described “cocky 19-year-old” at the time, Fearnley pushed himself so hard in his inaugural Paralympic marathon that he blacked out going over Sydney’s Anzac Bridge and came to rolling backwards down the hill. He recovered to finish the race.
Four years later, he had an even more famous push in the closing kilometres of the Athens Paralympics marathon, where he somehow got himself home for a gold medal despite a left tyre that punctured on the streets of the Greek capital.
Following the 2004 retirement of the great Australian wheelchair athlete Louise Sauvage, Fearnley became one of Australians’ main points of reference for Paralympians, as they saw his familiar face again and again on TV.
In Beijing another four years on, he raced again in the marathon. In a tight finish, where less than a minute separated the first 10 competitors, Fearnley rolled over the line narrowly ahead of Japan’s Hiroki Sasahara to clinch a second gold medal.
In between the Paralympics, there were marathons. Lots of them. And he won lots of them.
The boy from the bush became a world traveller — he had five New York marathon wins, plus victories in Chicago, Paris, London, Seoul, Sydney and elsewhere.
His desire to challenge himself went well beyond wheelchair racing, however.
In 2009, Fearnley crawled the entire 96km length of the Kokoda Track — as a way to acknowledge the sacrifice of Australian soldiers there in World War II, as an effort to raise awareness for men’s health and as a means to bond with the family and friends closest to him.
Two years later he took part in the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race on board Investec Loyal.
On his website, Fearnley has a section to answer kids’ most often-asked questions about him. In it, he nominates his favourite athlete as cyclist Cadel Evans.
It’s apt that he namechecks the groundbreaking Australian 2011 Tour de France winner, because both men are lauded for their integrity in sport, their blue-collar approach to competition and for their habit of putting their bodies through unbelievable pain in search of victory.
In the latter years of his career, Fearnley came up against great rivals like England’s David Weir and Swiss racer Marcel Hug, and both in London and Rio he came up short of the gold medals.
But his resilience and determination, and the ability to push on and try to the end, left him with everyone’s respect.
“Some of the most memorable moments are the hardest moments — they’re the things that you eventually become most proud of,” he said in an on-camera interview after his last Paralympic race in Rio two years ago.
“The days you wake up and you win, they’re … they’re awesome! They’re the easy days.
“Those days you wake up and you can barely drag yourself out of bed, where you’re in so much pain and discomfort and mentally just trying to grind yourself to just believe — they’re the tough days, and they’re the ones that I’m proud of.”
Gold Coast Games the perfect farewell
Ever since being part of the bid process eight years ago for Gold Coast winning the right to host the Commonwealth Games, Fearnley visualised the home Games as a natural choice to say goodbye to his time representing Australia.
He revelled in the atmosphere of the Games, particularly the inclusion of a big program of para-sport events which for the first time counted towards the medal tally.
The move brought the two sides of the Australian team together as one — with Fearnley, the elder statesman, a popular pick as Australian co-captain.
On Tuesday night, Fearnley came to the bell lap of his final track race, the T54 1,500m, trailing eventual winner Canada’s Alexandre Dupont but still going strong.
There was going to be no looking back, no waiting in the pack to choose a moment to make a move.
Fearnley was going at a strong pace for most if not all of the race — in the final lap he “punched” the carbon-fibre wheels of his racing chair 72 times to propel himself through the last 400m.
The roar that arose from the stands as he kept coming down the straight was spine tingling, but he could not get past Dupont — although the gap at the end was a mere 0.17 seconds.
In his post-race interview, he had a message to deliver — to thank people for their support and to ask something in return, to get Australians to think about ways of doing more to bring people with disabilities into communities and workforces, just like his own town had done for him many years ago.
Fearnley puts it all on the line in final push for gold
That’s what Com Games Gold takes. It takes everything. pic.twitter.com/n7x65BG8oY
— Kurt Fearnley (@kurtfearnley) April 14, 2018
Of course, the cadence and rhythm of a marathon is totally different to the 1,500m — the length of the race for one, but also the fact it is a road race, with inclines, hills and downhill sections to deal with instead of the flat stadium track.
The wheelchair racer is leaning forward the entire way, with their diaphragm being compressed, making it harder to breathe.
The racer spins the wheels several times in a rhythm, before using the momentum to free-wheel for a while and allow the body to recoup.
The last 42.195km of his Australian representative career played out on Sunday, and Fearnley was ready.
There are Paralympic marathons where the first five or 10 finishers are separated by a minute or less. That was not the case this time.
The veteran made his move early, making the break in the first few kilometres and he pulled away from the pack.
At one point the lead was out to an incredible one minute 41 seconds, before he eventually received the deafening cheers of the crowds, finishing one minute 18 seconds clear of England’s John Smith.
— Comm Games AUS (@CommGamesAUS) April 15, 2018
His farewell to representative racing took him past 3,200km just in marathons, not counting the numerous heats and finals in various track events, plus the endless distances covered in training — up to 150,000km — pushing in the chair.
“When I was cresting that hill with 700m to go, someone yelled ‘you’ve got this, you’ve got this’,” he said minutes afterwards, after rolling across the finish line, victorious but spent.
“That was just a moment of relief.”
Fearnley said he was thinking the whole way through the race about the fact it was his last outing for Australia.
In the warm, humid conditions, his heart rate spiked at 211 beats per minute during the race, but over the entire marathon his heart rate averaged 194 BPM.
“I just kept saying to myself, just fight, just fight, just fight,” he said.
“I saw it [heart rate] sitting that high … I thought this is just one last crack — I’m going to race marathons until they bury me in a gutter, but I’m not going to be able to find that [effort] again.
“When you’ve got that green and gold on, mate, you’ve got to be fierce and you’ve got to just deal with whatever you’ve got to deal with.
“You put it on, and you just fight and I was thinking that the whole time.”
What’s next for Kurt Fearnley?
He may not be Australia’s most-successful Paralympian — with the likes of Sauvage, swimmers Matt Cowdrey and Jacqueline Freney as well as sprinter Tim Matthews all surpassing his career tally of three golds, although his 44 wins from 76 career marathons balances the ledger a bit.
But it is arguable that throughout his career, his achievements and his honest, no-bulldust approach has made Fearnley the Paralympian closest to the hearts of the Australian public.
Less than a month past his 37th birthday, Fearnley is not stopping just yet, however.
He will race in the upcoming London marathon — just in case he had not covered enough territory for a lifetime already.
What comes next? As a husband and father and a qualified teacher, perhaps some semblance of a normal life will take over from the grind of constant training.
“I’m going to enjoy not feeling just absolutely exhausted when Harry [his son] wakes up in the morning,” he said.
One thing is certain — whatever Kurt Fearnley puts his mind to next, no one will doubt this Australian great’s capacity and ability to succeed.