A Differently-Abled Athlete and Philanthropist
Aside from being a very talented athlete with disability, Kurt Fearnley is also a famous philanthropist, passionately supporting a number of organizations that help people with disabilities. He has served as an ambassador for various organizations, promoting the welfare of disabled people. He also speaks at many events, encouraging many to never let their disabilities keep them from achieving their dreams.
Kurt Fearnley Family Profile
Kurt Fearnley is the youngest child of Jackie and Glenn Fearnley and has four older siblings. He was born in the town of Cowra, New South Wales in 1981. Kurt’s birth somewhat brought discouraging news to his parents. Upon giving birth to Kurt, the doctors informed his parents that he had sacral agenesis, which means that Kurt is missing parts of his lower spine.
In fact, the doctors even advised the parents to let Kurt stay in the hospital because they were not expecting him to survive in less than a week. However, Kurt’s parents decided to take Kurt home, declaring that if he only had a week to live, then it would be best to spend it with his family.
Growing Up with a Disability
Back at home, Kurt’s parents kept on praying for him, believing that he would live and be all right. The decision of Kurt’s parents was something that they would never regret. Sure enough, Kurt lived through the ordeal and survived. Kurt and his family then moved to Carcoar.
Although he grew up with a disability, Kurt rarely experienced discrimination and ridicule—from both his parents and from the community. In his speech at the 2013 Australia Day, Kurt recalled how his family never once told him what he couldn’t do nor what was off-limits to him. Instead, his parents showered Kurt with so much love and approval, constantly encouraging him to do anything he found doable.
Quotes on Growing Up in Carcoar
Aside from his parents, Kurt was also encouraged by the people in his community. In one of his interviews, Kurt stated:
“I had my Mum and Dad and my four other brothers and sisters sitting around me constantly telling me I can do anything. And then I had Carcoar, which is a town of 200 people, every time I see them they were telling me I can do anything and I think if you have that enough, you’re going to be determined. You’re told constantly from when you’re a kid that everything is possible, that I don’t think there’s any other alternative but to start to believe that.”
Aside from having a disability, Kurt’s family was also poor. In fact, for the few years in his life, Kurt had to crawl his way to places because his parents could not afford a wheelchair for him. Despite not having a wheelchair to make it easier for Kurt to move around, he did not sit idly and sulk in despair.
His parents kept on encouraging him, telling him that he could do anything. And so, Kurt often went with his older brothers and sisters whenever they played outside, went fishing, hunted rabbit, and even climbed trees. By the age of five, Kurt already knew how to climb over barbed wires and electric fences, cross streams and belt through blackberry bushes.
In school, Kurt engaged himself with sports despite having a disability. His classmates and teachers, he recalls, allowed him to play and even kept on cheering for him instead of ridiculing him for having a disadvantage. Because of this, sports became a large portion of Kurt’s life. And so, Kurt participated in almost every kind of sport that the school had to offer—cricket and rugby were his favorites.
Getting into Wheelchair Marathon
He became so adept with athletics that he won a medal for participating in the high jump. A few years later, he got introduced to wheelchair basketball after seeing some people on the television playing the sport. This was also the first time that Kurt ever got the idea of what the wheelchair was for.
Kurt kept on engaging in various sports for the rest of his freshman and sophomore years. It was not until he turned 14 that he decided to pursue a career. As he was playing rugby with his brothers outside, his father suddenly picked him up and hurriedly had Kurt sit in front of the television. As Kurt gazed on the screen, he saw a group of people in wheelchairs racing around the city of Sydney. From that moment on, Kurt’s passion for wheelchair racing was born.
Kurt’s Dream of Joining Wheelchair Racing Made Possible by Neighbors
When his teacher Maureen Dickson learned of Kurt’s interest in wheelchair racing, she took him and introduced Kurt to Paralympics, letting Kurt sit in a sports chair for the first time. That very moment, Kurt decided that he wanted to be a wheelchair athlete and to someday race in the Paralympics.
Kurt’s dream was big and it was no doubt going to be expensive. From the wheelchair itself to the equipment for the sport, it was clear for Kurt and his parents that they did not have the money needed to fulfill his dream. In spite of this, Kurt’s parents remained positive, continually trying to find a way to get the money needed.
With the help of a teacher in high school, the unexpected happened—Kurt’s family received 10,000 dollars, the amount required to get Kurt started in racing. What was more memorable to Kurt during that day was the 10,000 dollars did not come from a bank loan, it came from 200 neighbors who all contributed to see Kurt pursue his dream. In an interview Kurt gave many years later, he recalled this event:
“The town had got together and raised $10,000 and they bought the chair and they... paid for the trip and they said if ‘he needs anything else you know we’re going to make sure that he... gets that opportunity.’ So it’s a town of 200 people within a week had had 10 grand sitting there, so it was it’s nice now that I know that Carcoar have this... bond I guess, or they know that they’re the reason that I’m here.”
Backed by the encouragement and support from his neighbors, Kurt Fearnley entered wheelchair racing in 1995 at the age of 14. After graduating from high school, he transferred to Sydney to start training and to study Human Movement so he can earn a bachelor’s degree.
The following year, Kurt officially experienced his first race at the Oz Day 10 kilometer race. Although much younger and chubbier compared to the other competitors, Kurt was not dismayed and was able to finish the race.
In 1997, Kurt became a member of the Western Region Academy of Sport after he was discovered for his amazing skill in wheelchair racing. It was here that Kurt further improved his strength and skills that by the year 2000, he represented Australia at that year’s Paralympics which was held in Sydney. During these games Kurt managed to win two silver medals in the 4x100 meter relay and the 800 meter events. Although it brought quite a disappointment because Kurt was not able to get the gold medals, the incident only fueled his desire in gaining the championship medal and train further.
Kurt participated in the 2002 IPC Athletics World Championships for the first time, which was held in England. Although he only managed to land 7th in both the 400 meter and 800 meter events, he saw these failures as stepping stones for him to build his career and reach a greater level.
Participating in the Olympic Games
In 2004, Kurt Fearnley participated at the Olympic Games for the first time and landed 5th in the Men’s 1,500 meter wheelchair demonstration race. In the Paralympic Games that same year, Kurt finally won his first gold medal for the 5,000 meter T54 race, followed by another gold medal for the marathon T54 event. These feats earned him the Medal of the Order of Australia.
Kurt’s athletic career further soared in the 2006 IPC Athletics World Championships, which was held in the Netherlands, as he took home three gold medals and one bronze medal for various events. In the 2008 Paralympics, although Kurt failed to snatch the gold medals in the 800 meter T54, 5,000 meter T54 and 1,500 meter T54 events, earning two silvers and one bronze, respectively, he managed to defend his title by pushing at the last five kilometers with a flat tire in the marathon event, winning the gold medal. Two months later, he won gold medals for the New York and Chicago marathons, making him the only person with a disability to have won the race three times.
In 2009, Kurt climbed Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower, taking on the 1,504 fire stairs two at a time, eventually finishing within twenty minutes. While his training-climbing time was far short of the annual charity climb record, which was six minutes fifty-two seconds, the Tower’s manager stated that Kurt’s time was still faster compared to the 25–minute requirement for most able-bodied people. This same year, Kurt won victories in marathon events in Seoul, Paris, London, and Sydney.
One of Kurt’s most distinguished engagements was also in 2009, when he crawled the famous Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. With the support of his friends and family, along with sponsorship from Movember and Beyond Blue, Kurt completed the 96 kilometer track in just ten days. For his feats, he was awarded the Young Australian of the Year of New South Wales.
Joining the New York Marathon
In 2010, Kurt participated in the New York marathon, where he finished third. Although a bit disappointing, he was able to regain his reputation after snatching the gold medal in the 1,500 meter T54 event at the Delhi Commonwealth Games. This same year he became an ambassador for the International Day of People with Disability and Kurt’s face was featured on the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival medal. The following year, he participated in the marathon event at the 2011 IPC Athletics World Championships and won first place.
In 2012, Kurt competed at the London Paralympics, aiming to be the very first Paralympic athlete to claim gold medals at three consecutive T54 marathon events. However, he was unable to get this and instead won a silver medal in the 5,000 meter T54 event and a bronze medal in the T54 marathon event. In spite of the disappointment, Kurt did not let the incident weigh him down. In some interviews conducted after the event, Kurt simply said, “We’ll do better the next time.”
Kurt has given a speech at the 2013 Australia Day, recalling his past and how he was able to achieve the status that he has today. Many were motivated and inspired by the speech that Kurt gave, some even shed tears after hearing of his childhood.
In spite of his hectic schedule and disability, Kurt somehow amazingly finds time in engaging in philanthropic activities. He is currently supporting several charitable organizations that promote the welfare of people with disabilities. Through his speeches and participation in various programs that are sponsored by these organizations, Kurt keeps on becoming an example to other people with disabilities that no obstacle, ailment, or disability can keep them from achieving their dream, as long as they keep on believing.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Sport and Tourism Youth Foundation
- Don’t DIS my ABILITY
- International Day of People with a Disability
- Day of Difference Foundation
- Australian Volunteers International
- National Disability Insurance Scheme
- Awards and Achievements
- 2000: Won Silver Medal at the Men’s 800m T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2000: Won Silver Medal at the Men’s 4x100m relay T53/T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2004: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s 5,000m T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2004: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s Marathon T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2004: Won Silver Medal at the Men’s 4x100m relay T53/T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2004: Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia
- 2006: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s 800m T54 in the IPC Athletics World Championships
- 2006: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s 5,000m T54 in the IPC Athletics World Championships
- 2006: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s Marathon T54 in the IPC Athletics World Championships
- 2006: Won Bronze Medal at the Men’s 1,500m T54 in the IPC Athletics World Championships
- 2007: Named as the Athlete of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Sport
- 2007: Inducted into the Western Region Academy Hall of Fame
- 2007: Named as the Athlete of the Year with a Disability by the Confederation of Australian Sports
- 2007: Named as the Athlete of the Year by the New South Wales Sports Federation
- 2007: Became a finalist at the Laureus World Sports Awards
- 2008: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s Marathon T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2008: Won Silver Medal at the Men’s 800m T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2008: Won Silver Medal at the Men’s 5,000m T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2008: Won Bronze Medal at the Men’s 1,500m T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2009: Named the New South Wales Young Australian of the Year
- 2009: Became a finalist at the Laureus World Sports Awards
- 2010: Won Gold Medal at the 1,500m T54 in the Commonwealth Games
- 2011: Won Gold Medal at the Men’s Marathon T54 in the IPC Athletics World Championships
- 2011: Nominated as The Age’s Sport Performer Awardee in Performer with a Disability
- 2012: Won Silver at the Men’s 5,000m T54 in the Paralympic Games
- 2012: Won Bronze Medal at the Men’s Marathon T54 in the Paralympic Games