Kurt Fearnley: the most impressive human I’ve ever met
Kurt Fearnley has set his sights on competing at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. (Image: AFP)
He is like one of the science fiction characters I was enchanted by as a boy, a meld of man and machine that became something more, something better.
It was clear watching Kurt Fearnley in full flight in the London Paralympic marathon, he isn’t like you and me.
He isn’t like anyone else you know, either.
With his heart rate topping out at 207 beats per minutes, the veins in his neck bulging and his arms propelling him at a speed your legs could never match, he is an uber human. He isn’t alone.
The Paralympics was a seemingly unending cavalcade of exceptional athletes; exceptional in every sense of the word. He didn’t even win gold this time, for a change.
Hear Kurt Fearnley speak, though, and you truly feel you are privy to someone with unique insight, a wisdom not revealed to other mortals.
As the Twittersphere choked with trolling and lynchmobs last week, Kurt Fearnley sent his love to the “toughest chick on the planet”, fellow wheelchair athlete Christie Dawes.
While the media reminded owners of three-bedroom homes in first-world cities they were “doing it tough”, Kurt Fearnley told News Limited “My life’s a bloody gift; I get to wake up every morning and be stronger. I don’t have disability in my life.”
That may be the closest anyone has come to articulating what is so attractive about Paralympic athletes (and many other people living with disability achieving in others spheres).
I’m hesitant to apply broad brushes, but in many cases the “gift” of disability is at least an appreciation, at most a delight in life that seems denied many people who have lived with fewer challenges.
As I swore like a sailor for missing a backhand on a sunny Spring day this week, the minibus full of people with a disability who spilled onto the court next to me squealed with delight at their good fortune and my ludicrous behaviour.
Kurt Fearnley and his ilk display a special relationship with life, an intense engagement with existence that is highly desirable, and apparently elusive, to many of us. He is not an inspiration, that word carries a faint tone of condescension.
No, he makes me aspirational. He is edifying.
I can never be like him for a whole range of reasons but he embodies, within a body that qualifies as disabled, the greatest of human qualities. He is the most impressive human I’ve ever met.
I’m not alone. Earlier this year, I was the Australia Day ambassador in Fearnley’s tiny home town of Carcour, in Central Western New South Wales. The people there are not given to hyperbole or hero worship. Kurt Fearnley, though, is a God in Carcour.
The park in the town centre bears his name. Everyone has a Kurt story from when he was a little fellow and the town raised the funds for his first wheelchair or when he tackled them playing footy at school.
My five-year-old daughter nearly leaps out of the car when she spies him training the streets with a fervour usually found only amongst true Beliebers.
I assure her Kurt and I are great friends because I know she’ll be impressed. I doubt he would describe me as such. Everyone who meets Kurt leaves feeling like they’ve made a special connection.
Every time he sits in on my radio show, which is often, I am – and the audience is – held spellbound as he offers his take on sport, politics, love, life, the Universe and everything. Colleagues swoon and giggle in his presence.
Giggling and swooning and spellbinding moments became de rigueur in Australia during the Paralympics. An average 1.6 million Australians watched each day, delivering record ratings for ABC and the highest ever share for ABC2.
The night of the closing ceremony, The Shire, a reality television show focused on the cosmetic surgery and consumer culture of a privileged Sydney beachside suburb (read fake boobs and high heels) captured the imagination of just 237,000.
The same night, the juggernaut Big Brother, which enjoyed a steroid shot of pre-publicity from the Olympics, pulled 951,000 viewers.
It suggests these people with a disability, armed with a minimal marketing budget on the public broadcaster, have served up some reality television Australians are hungry for.
The athletes certainly felt it.
“It’s a positive thing to know that it’s not just me and my family that want it, it’s a wider community,” Fearnley told News Limited about the support he had in his hunt for gold.
Providing the perfect antidote to Olympians who cried uncontrollably at finishing second, 13-year-old Paralympic swimmer Maddi Elliott who innocently proclaimed; “I just wanted to do a personal best but I got a medal of every colour.”
Putting every traffic jam and mobile phone dropout in perspective was 43-year-old Liesl Tesch who lost her mother just days before she could claim her first gold medal at her sixth Olympics in her second sport.
And without a hint of irony, Mother/Teacher/Wheelchair marathon athlete Christie Dawes allegedly said of her failure to win gold that it could be worse, she could be in Syria.
Perhaps the Paralympics are a rare helping of authenticity in a world pre-packaged, cross-promoted, demographically-targeted, performance-enhanced multi-media reality.
Perhaps the cult of the individual has evolved to the point where people who might once have been singled out for their difference are now exalted for it. Frankly, I doubt it.
I suspect we are drawn to the Paralympics for the same reason I loved those science fictions stories.
They personify a hope that the human race can graft technology and the human spirit to transcend our shortcomings and perhaps even turn our weaknesses into strengths – to become something better.
Kurt Fearnley once said; “They were telling me I can do anything and I think if you have that enough, you’re going to be determined. (If) you’re told constantly from when you’re a kid that everything is possible, I don’t think there’s any other alternative but to start to believe that.”
For just a few weeks, he and his mates made the rest of us feel like everything was possible, too.
- Kurt Fearnley