Kurt Fearnley AO was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2023 as an Athlete Member for his contribution to the sport of athletics.
A three-time Paralympic gold medallist, four time World Champion and dual Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Kurt Fearnley was one of the most resilient and respected athletes Australia has produced.
In a stellar career spanning more than two decades, Fearnley won more than 40 marathons as a wheelchair athlete, including the New York, Chicago, Tokyo and London events. Just as significantly, his numerous achievements on and off the track were an inspiration to people of all abilities and he provided a voice to many Australians who had often gone unheard.
In the first of his five appearances at the Paralympics, he made his mark by winning two silver medals in Sydney in 2000, which set the platform for two gold medals four years later in Athens – in the 5000m and the marathon events.
He backed that marathon gold up with success in Beijing in 2008, also winning two silver medals and a bronze in other events, while he won a silver and bronze in London in 2012.
He closed out his Paralympic journey with a silver medal in Rio in 2016.
Fearnley’s dominance of his chosen sport saw him win three gold medals as well as a bronze at the 2006 World Championships in Assen, the Netherlands. He also won another gold medal in the marathon at the 2011 World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand.
He closed out his athletics career with a gold medal victory in the 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon on the Gold Coast, eight years after his victory in the 1500m at Delhi Commonwealth Games. He also won silver in the men’s 1500m on the Gold Coast, a fitting farewell event in front of a home-country crowd.
His emotional victory paved the way for Fearnley to become the first athlete with a disability to win the Sport Australia Hall of Fame ‘The Don’ award in 2018, an award which honours a team or athlete whose achievements or examples most inspired the nation.
Kurt Fearnley became one of Australian sport’s most admired and recognised athletes, shining a light on what can be achieved if the heart, mind and soul are willing, and providing an inspiration to Australians of all abilities.
Growing up in a large, loving and active family in the small New South Wales town of Carcoar, Fearnley was encouraged to make the most of every opportunity – and he did. He took on almost every challenge presented to him, encouraged by his parents and siblings.
Some of his childhood exploits – crawling under barbed wire fences and carting himself on his elbows across paddocks and up and down hills – would become the connecting points to his athletic challenges of the future. From his earliest days, as the title of his best-selling autobiography Pushing The Limits detailed, he was prepared to tackle almost every hurdle.
A teacher from his school, Blayney High School, saw potential in him and helped to set up some opportunities through Wheelchair Sports New South Wales, while his hometown initially helped to raise funds to help him compete in events as a wheelchair athlete.
Few could have imagined how far those dreams – and his wheels – would take him, nor the impact he would have on so many people across his celebrated career.
As a 19-year-old, Fearnley launched himself on the international stage at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, winning two silver medals (800m and 4x100m). In what would become his signature event, the marathon, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion, saying the gruelling 42km event “busted every part of me … but I wanted more.”
Four years later, he won double Paralympics gold at the Athens Games. His first gold came in the 5000m event before he turned in an even more remarkable performance in the marathon, pushing on to victory, despite an unforeseen obstacle – a puncture tyre – in the last five kilometres that could have broken the spirit of other competitors.
He pushed on, and his reward was a second Paralympic gold medal.
Fearnley’s ability to push through the pain barrier came to the fore in a series of marathons on some of the world’s most challenging courses. He set a wheelchair record at the New York marathon in 2006 and the following year won 10 of the 11 marathons he competed in during a nine-month stretch.
His dominance also saw him win three world championship gold medals in 2006.
Fearnley went into the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 with high expectations, but luck deserted him early in the meet, as he finished with two silver medals (800m and 5000m) and a bronze (1500m). But his performance to win back-to-back gold medals in the marathon swept away the near-misses with his narrow victory one of the most significant of his career.
His 2009 year was full of noteworthy achievements including a fourth successive New York marathon victory, a third straight Chicago marathon win and success also in Sydney, London, Paris and Seoul. But it was his extraordinary feat of completing the Kokoda Track – crawling on his hands across the arduous 96km terrain – to raise money for charity, endearing himself even more to Australians as well as providing further evidence of his never-say-die spirit.
He won his first Commonwealth Games gold medal (1500m) in Delhi in 2010, before adding a fourth world championship title in Christchurch in 2011 (marathon), the same year as he competed on the winning yacht in the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht race.
Fearnley narrowly missed out on his quest to become the first person to win three straight Paralympic marathons at the London Paralympics in 2012, being edged out in a sprint finish to win bronze in what he called one of the hardest fought medals of his career. He also won a silver medal in the 5000m.
He won a bronze medal in the 1500m at the 2014 Commonwealth Games before winning a fifth New York marathon later that year, describing it as one of the toughest races of his life with the race almost postponed due to high winds.
He competed in a fifth Paralympics in Rio in 2016, winning a silver medal in the marathon, finishing point zero one of a second behind the winner Marcel Hug. He had been on the podium in the event in four consecutive Paralympics, a testament to his character and commitment. He also collected a bronze medal in the 5000m.
But Fearnley wanted to end his career on home soil at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. It was an even he had long been connected with, having been on the final bid team to secure the event. In a significant move forward, it was the largest integrated para-sports event in Commonwealth Games history.
He won silver in the 1500m, but it was his emotional gold medal victory in the marathon which perfectly closed out his athletics career and captivated the attention of the nation. He was chosen as Australia’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremony, a moment of immense pride given how much the 37-year-old enjoyed representing his country.
The impact of that victory saw Fearnley rewarded as the first athlete with a disability to win the Sport Australia Hall of Fame ‘The Don’ award, presented to the person or team who by their achievements and example had the capacity to most inspire a nation.
While Fearnley’s athletic career was over, his commitment to sport and to the support for people with disabilities continues to live on in so many different forms.
As he explained in 2018, “Every battle I win on the track or for a new ramp or change of policy that brings long-deserved rights and access to people with disability is their win. If I can use my profile and ugly mug to give a voice and face to those who don’t have the chance themselves, I must.”
Honours & Achievements
- 2005: Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia
- 2007: NSW Institute of Sport Athlete of the Year
- 2014: AIS Sport Performance Awards – Sport Personality of the Year
- 2018: Australian flag bearer at the 2018 Commonwealth Games closing ceremony
- 2018: Upgraded to an Officer of the Order of Australia
- 2018: Won the Sport Australia Hall of Fame The Don Award
- 2018: AIS Sport Performance Awards – ABC Best Sporting Moment of The Year
- 2022: Inducted into the Paralympics Australia Hall of Fame
Photo courtesy News Corp Australia.