Kurt Fearnley: When I go out and take a push, it’s like going for a walk. You know, I’m in my day chair right now. The day chair is a separate wheelchair. It’s the thing that you think of as your walking legs. And for somebody that’s never been in a chair, it’s just a stroll. It’s out here to enjoy the environment, to look around and just have a moment to yourself.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives.
As part of a series on world-class athletes, this episode features Kurt Fearnley, a gold medalist in both the Paralympics and Commonwealth Games. The wheelchair athlete has competed in five consecutive Paralympic Games, winning three gold medals. He has also won over 40 marathons, including New York, Chicago and London. In this episode of Time to Walk, which becomes Time to Walk or Push for wheelchair users, Kurt talks about the first time he imagined a different kind of future for himself and why a grueling journey took on an unexpected meaning.
[SOUND OF WHEELS ROLLING]
Kurt Fearnley: I’m pushing on an old rail line they’ve been able to turn into a bike path and a walking track. It’s pretty much right in the center of the town that I live, of Newcastle, Australia, but you hop on to this thing, and you follow it for 15 kilometers. And you get to experience everything from the beach to what feels like a rainforest. And you’re surrounded by these beautiful, big trees from jacarandas to figs to beautiful gum trees.
We’re headed up to what is pretty much the most notable image that it is an old train line, and it’s a… it’s the tunnel, the train tunnel. It’s at the top of the first peak of the hill, and every time that I would go through this tunnel, I just remember being exhausted because you’ve had about three minutes where you’re just working so hard up this slight incline that… and you know, on the other side of the tunnel, there’s a flat. And a flat doesn’t mean a lot until your heart rate’s… feels like it’s bouncing through your chest. But that other side of the tunnel is relief.
So I have lumbosacral agenesis, which is the bottom half of my spine just didn’t form. So it meant that my legs weren’t strong enough to carry me around. And the only way that I was going to move around was that I needed to be able to use my arms to compensate for everything. My arms are my… my heel, my hip. They are… They are the thing that just gives me life.
When my mum and dad found out who I was, they took me back to this tiny little town of 200 people. And you think of a country that is so modern as Australia, there are also pockets of just isolation. And I was headed back to one of those isolated little patches of land, that town of 200 people four or five hours inland from Sydney.
My parents had never seen disability before. They had never really experienced it before. They didn’t really know what they were getting into, but despite all of the overwhelming desire to shut the curtains on the rest of the community to feel like you have to deal with this complicated thing like disability on your own, they… They didn’t really get that opportunity.
This tiny little town of 200 people demanded that I would be theirs. They demanded that I would have access into that community, that I was their family. When you grow up in a part of the world where concrete is a luxury that you don’t really have, and you require a wheelchair, then you have some pretty interesting adventures.
My family understood that life’s always about getting your hands dirty, they knew that I would need to be out and crawling and chasing my brothers and sisters and climbing over barbed wire fences and crawling through rivers and taking every single one of those cuts and bruises that was required to do that. And not only that, but on the other side of every single fence that I would climb onto, there would always be a shoulder there, always, a shoulder that I’d be able to climb onto for a bit. When I talk about that town, it was truly every person within the town understood who I was and bought into it.
When it became time for me to go to school, 1985, there was still a push for segregated education for people in wheelchairs. And I’m four years old in my mum and dad’s house when they have this meeting with my school to say that I can’t go through to my, my local school where my brothers and sisters, where my… where my dad went, where my grandparents went. And I remember it kind of landing like a lead balloon in that house, this thought that I’m going to have to go elsewhere.
And immediately after that meeting, my principal walked up to my mum and dad and, and told my mum and dad to ignore what was just told to me, ignore his own bosses, that I was deserving of the same education as my siblings and there is no alternative but me coming there. And he would then, over his Christmas holidays, he would cement parts of the school so that I could actually get into it utilizing a wheelchair.
But it does come a time in people’s lives where, I guess, difference sometimes catches up to you. And for me, it was when I was going into high school. And it’s one of those periods of time where you’re 12 or 13 years old, where you’re growing quickly and everybody around you is growing quickly. And your difference is terrifying. You don’t want to be the one that’s different. You want to fit in. You know, you want to be like everyone else.
And for me, I couldn’t do that anymore. I felt like it got to this point where my friends were getting bigger and stronger and more able, more agile, and I stopped. And at that point in time, I did start to retreat. I did start to not want to socialize.
In this little town, there was no other people with disabilities. The only time I saw someone in a wheelchair was when they were sick in hospitals or when there was an advertisement that would come on television that would say, you know, “Don’t drink and drive, or don’t speed in your car or else you’ll turn out like this guy.” I just didn’t really understand who I was because I’d never met anyone else like me.
At that same time, my dad would see a wheelchair race for the very first time, and he would show it to me. And I saw these strong, powerful people that were… that were like from a different planet. But I knew that I could actually get there. That, that was my planet.
But my dad was a laborer. My mum was keeping five kids, you know. So my town just started to raise money. People who barely had enough money to look after themselves and their own family were digging into their pocket and giving to me. And, although we weren’t financial, my family were proud. And they tried to stop my community raising money, and they were pretty much just told to sit down. They said, “It’s between us and the boy. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
And they would raise money from raffles and donations. And all of a sudden a wheelchair was purchased for me, a racing wheelchair and a ticket to America, to Fort Collins, where there was a wheelchair sports camp.
I remember landing and getting a bus, and it was the middle of the night. So I didn’t see anyone. It was… It seemed pretty normal for having just been on the other side of the world. But the next morning, after I had put my race chair together, I pushed down to the athletics track, and there were hundreds of kids in wheelchairs. You know, they weren’t being told that they are broken. They were beautiful and strong, and they were fast. I just barely could associate being one of them. But I knew I was.
And I sat in a space where there were 800 kids with disabilities, and it was like seeing an entire world there where the common theme was just difference, where I belonged. I landed in a community that had a culture that allowed me to step into it and feel like I was just a part of every inch of it. At a time where I needed it, I landed in a space where I just knew I belonged, and I knew I needed to be.
My journey doesn’t happen, just doesn’t happen unless people buy into who I can be, doesn’t happen. We need to recognize that we each can play a role in each other’s lives. Community are able to offer you a foundation of who you are, but they’re also able to offer you doors and pathways that you were just never able to access on your own.
[SOUND OF WHEELS ROLLING]
To its simplest form, a marathon’s about dealing with discomfort. And so, to deal with that, then you’ve got to not just build up the physicality to be able to run a marathon or push a marathon, but you need to create a space where you are willing to dig in and carry yourself further and faster than any other person in the world. My coach would always say that we’re building a voice, an idea, and that will be the strongest thing that you have. He had the intention of removing every voice of doubt that I had in my brain, everything. Every doubt that I would carry, he wanted to replace it. And he would replace any doubt that I had with this idea that I was stronger than any moment of discomfort.
One of the strangest things to remember is pushing New York Marathon. I was racing it to go for my fifth straight win. And I think of this race as being one of my perfect races.
But 20 kilometers into the race, while I was pushing through the streets of Brooklyn, I go to take a righthand turn, and I rip my steering off my chair. Steering just comes apart in my hand. And the steering is the only way that you, you get around corners, and all of a sudden it’s dangling on the side of my wheelchair, attached to it only through a brake cable.
And when everything felt like it had fallen apart in that moment, the only thought that I had is, “How do I still win here? How do I still own this moment?” You know?
And for the next 20 kilometers, every time that I would have to take a right or a lefthand turn, I would have to throw my ribs into the side of the chair. I would feel the bruise that would be starting to be built from that first turn to 20 kilometers later, it’s just a bruise on top of a bruise over the ribcage. You’d feel a sharp pain in your rib cartilage every time you tried to turn left or right.
But I disconnected from that discomfort so far that with about five kilometers to go, I remember, like, blinking myself to be present again. It’s like you’re waking up. And I remember realizing that I’m crying, and then I realize that I’m… I’m, like, yelling at myself. And I’m just saying, “Who are you? Who are you?” And I know that, you know? It’s… that’s my trigger. I’m strong. I’m resilient. I never give up. And, at that moment, all the gold medals become irrelevant.
I would finish about 32 seconds away from the eventual winner, in second place. But I learned who I was there. I learned about strength, real strength. I learned that it’s not a muscle that wrapped around a bone. That’s a part of it, sure. But I learned tapping into that when everything’s ripped away, all the physicality is busted, half of the equipment is busted, but the voice is still there. You know, nothing can affect that. No one can take that. That’s mine.
And there’s a reason why I would win 42 marathons but a second place is one of the… It’s one of the few perfect races. I think that we can all benefit from that conversation every now and then, really having a solid understanding of who you are, sitting down, and when you ask the question, “Who are you?” I think we can all benefit from knowing the answer to that. We can all find what it is that makes us us and what it is that we truly value about ourselves.
[SOUND OF WHEELS ROLLING]
The Kokoda Trail goes through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. It’s 96 kilometers long. It’s almost like a pilgrimage. 3 to 6,000 Australians will cross the 96 kilometers every year. I always get asked why a guy in a wheelchair would want to crawl it, and the immediate response is always, “Why not? If I think I can do something, if I want to do it, why wouldn’t it just happen?” But I would do it with my family and my brothers and cousins, all of the guys that, that I would rely on as a kid.
It would be 11 days that I would crawl along the track. Every day was about nine hours of crawling. Every single time you would move your body a meter, it was like a benchpress. And the physicality was hard, but there’s also leeches, and you’re constantly wet, and you’re constantly sinking into mud.
But even still, I just remember every night you would have a moment of relief that you’d done that day. And then you would lie there and just have to get your head around doing it again the next day. But you’d always get to that space where you knew if you took a step outside, you’d take another one and, yeah, another one after that.
When we got this group together, a guy in a wheelchair who was born on the Kokoda Track, he would come up to me, and he’d say, “Kurt, you don’t know this. I don’t think you even want to know this.” And he would tell me that people with disabilities in Papua New Guinea, they are looked after and loved and supported, but he thinks the community think they shouldn’t or don’t want to interact with the wider community.
And he said to me, “Every person with a disability in Papua New Guinea, they’re all going to be on your shoulders.”
And I truly didn’t understand what he meant until the first village that we made it into. The villages, they were beautiful, really, and I was able to get out of the mud and put my wheelchair down and push into this village. And where I’m starting to feel like myself again because I’m no longer crawling in the dirt, I, I see the community, and I’d start to engage and bring them in and talk and laugh. And then it was pointed out to me there was a kid with a disability in this village. He was isolated underneath one of the houses just crawling in the mud.
And I would push over to this kid, and I realized pretty quickly that he was afraid of me. And I couldn’t have that. And I learned immediately I need to be out of my wheelchair. I need this kid to see me in him. I need this kid to see him in me, my experience. There can’t be daylight between it.
It all really came down to that moment of looking at this kid and realizing that I needed to share that space because if I do that, if I get rid of my wheelchair in that space and I sit down with this kid and I crawl around with this kid, owning what is perceived to be my vulnerability, there is strength there because then you actually get to have real conversations for a bit. You get to talk about the strength in knowing and owning your vulnerability. How does a guy in a wheelchair have power in his life even when that wheelchair is taken away? That moment just cemented it in me.
I am sitting in the dirt with this kid, and I know that that kid right there is as hungry for life as every other kid in our world. That kid wants to be given the open doors that community gave to me. He’s, he’s begging for it. He just doesn’t even know it’s there.
For me, that’s the… That’s the hardest moment of my life, you know, because realizing how many people are still in the dirt and realizing how vulnerable I was, you know? Of all the things that I took from that track, that moment still kind of haunts me. Just knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of kids out there that are still there, that’s hard. I do remember coming home and just thinking that I can’t solve that for everyone. But you have to play a part in where you can.
And since then, I’ve, I’ve been into slums in the middle of Africa or townships or refugee camps through the Middle East, and you try to build a bit of that conflict between the reality and the fears around disability and just try and put a little bit of a spark of hope into it.
It’s the funny thing about that moment, when you’re that kid in the dirt, you have such little power to get yourself out of it. You know, you’re stuck there. Everyone else decides when it’s time for you to get out. There are so many things that are keeping kids stuck in mud. But we could all play a role.
I would hope that you’d want to be the person that sees potential and beauty and strength in that little kid and you want to play a part in making him fierce and making him feel like he is valued. I don’t live this life without somebody feeling that. I don’t get to where I am without somebody stepping in and fighting for me.
Of all the ideas of what I thought I would get out of that track, of all the experiences, you know, I never saw coming what is its lasting impact on me. So, if there’s a purpose to my story, it’s that… it’s people and community, realizing that we’ve got the keys for each and every one of our people within it. We just need to share them.
[SOUND OF WHEELS ROLLING]
I am midway through the first climb. I can see the tunnel is about 250 meters up the hill. And this is where, when you’re training, this is where the pain really starts to kick in.
When I first moved to Newcastle, this track gave me safety because the majority of my training was on the road, but I could come here and I could feel safe. Then you learn every meter of this track. 15 kilometers long, and you know what this track’s going to do to you for every second that you’re on it. And you kind of program your body into pushing it.
So, when you’re coming into this tunnel and you’re pushing, it’s so bright. Everything’s so bright, and then you can’t see past the shadow. And then you’re inside the tunnel, and you’ve went from the outside where you’re hearing birds and you’re seeing the canopy of trees, and it’s light and beautiful, to just being here on your own. And you’re in it.
You’re pushing up this thing. You’re, you’re gritting your teeth, and you’re… you know, you’re, you’re sweating, and you’re kind of screaming internally to get to the top of this hill. It’s intense, that… that point. I’ve got to say it is much nicer just cruising.
[SOUND OF WHEELS ROLLING]
I find that music plays a role in every part of my life. It can be the thing that just makes moments so much more memorable and enjoyable, but it can also build you, as well. So I utilize it. I, I feel like it’s just a part of my tool belt that, should I require it during the day to switch on or switch off, music’s there. It’s like a constant attachment that I can just reach into and utilize depending on where I’m at and what I’m after.
I love Grinspoon. They were one of the first concerts that I saw. And when I heard “Chemical Heart” I just remember it being really different to any of their other songs. And this idea that we can reinvent ourself and we’re able to recreate what our sound is or, or who we are, I like that. And this song I just think is… It’s just a… It’s just a beautiful song.
[MUSIC - “CHEMICAL HEART” BY GRINSPOON]
Silverchair, this song in particular, the “Anthem to the Year 2000”, this is what I listen to if I need to be fierce. This is what I would listen to as a young kid getting ready to race for the very first time. This would put me in a space where I don’t need a competitor to push me. I’m there.
[MUSIC - “ANTHEM FOR THE YEAR 2000” BY SILVERCHAIR]
Jebediah, “Jerks of Attention”, I loved this at the end of my high school, and it’s… This would be one where I would utilize it to switch off. I would be consumed around the most minute detail of wheelchair racing, but this was about just letting it go.
[MUSIC - “JERKS OF ATTENTION” BY JEBEDIAH]
Right now, I’m exhausted. It’s tiring, right? Because if you want to tell a story, you need to put yourself in that space and you need to go back to moments that are uncomfortable. And that can be hard because day-to-day life, you’re just… you’re dealing with what’s in front you and you’re running. But when you go back to spots where you’re literally sitting in mud, where you’re questioning who you are, where you… where you were going through, like, uncomfortable moments, like, they’re hard. But there is value in telling those stories. I do believe there is value.
Thanks for taking the time to push with me today.