Kurt Fearnley on Kokoda, struggles and gratitude

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

KF              Kurt Fearnley

KF              I constantly wonder about what it is to be Australian, and that track actually taught me, I think, a fair bit about that. The idea is that these average blokes decided to sacrifice everything for their neighbour.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, the politics-free podcast about living a happy, health, and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning, and love.

                   We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Kurt Fearnley’s a wheelchair racer with three Paralympic gold medals. He’s competed in the last four Paralympics, crawled the 96km Kokoda trail, won marathons in New York, London, Chicago, Seoul, Paris, and Sydney, and crewed the winning yacht for the Sydney to Hobart.

                   He is, quite simply, one of the toughest humans I’ve ever met. He’s been a hero of mine for a long time, and it’s great to have him on the podcast today. Welcome Kurt.

KF              Thanks for the invite.

AL               So you grew up as the youngest of five kids in Carcoar. Tell me, is that how I pronounce Carcoar?

KF              Close. Car-core.

AL               Carcoar.

KF              Yes, a bit harsher, a bit more guttural.

AL               Yes, all right, Carcoar. Tell me about life in Carcoar?

KF              It’s, yes, I feel like I grew up in the ‘80s, but it’s more like a ‘50s. It was outside toilet, it was surrounded by family. Half of Carcoar were direct relatives of me. With my grandma had 11 kids and they all had an average of about five kids. And we just, we were in each other’s pockets. It was a really sheltered, beautiful, classic way to grow up in regional Australia.

AL               Now you were born unable to walk. And so then there you are as a kid in regional Australia in what you describe as kind of 1950s childhood, which involved an awful lot of time out in the bush and in the water, right?

KF              Yes, which is why I like having a yarn here. We’re sitting outside watching the… Getting a bit of breeze, which probably doesn’t help for the listener, but it’s my whole life was outside.

                   My whole life was crawling around paddocks, jumping into rivers, trying to find mischief that was probably seen as something that, well, probably felt by people that it would be something that I wouldn’t have been able to be a part of. Because I did have pretty significant mobility… With a disability.

                   But everyone just adjusted. Everyone just made it the new normal. And my whole town just felt like I was, they demanded for me to be out there, demanded me to be a part of everything.

                   And the wheelchair got very little use until I went to school. It was just crawling around the bush, chasing after my siblings, trying to prove to them that I could, I don’t know, that I could just, I was one of them.

AL               There’s a sort of indignity to crawling about. If I was to crawl here, I think I would feel a bit, I don’t know, ashamed or something. But you must’ve overcome that very quickly.

KL               Well, you do what you got to do. You do what you got to. I found strength and dignity in crawling. I found… And my family were warned against letting me crawl. They were told don’t let me out of a wheelchair, don’t… If I do get out of a wheelchair, give me crutches, and I know that he’s not going to be able to be as quick as everyone else, but he’ll look like everyone else.

                   And that’s garbage. It’s garbage. I’ll choose where and when I crawl. And if I feel like I can be a better father, a better brother, a better sibling, a better community member, if I feel like I can be…

                   I do, fortunately, I do have the strength to be able to use my mobility outside of a chair. If I choose where and when I do it, then I find strength in it, and I find dignity in it, and I have no issues about how far you stray away from looking like the normal.

AL               Is that where a lot of your mental toughness comes from, from that childhood?

KF              Yes, a lot of it is built through the day-to-day realities of growing up in a bush. As in before you go to… When you grow up out there without being able to walk, you’re climbing over barb-wire fences by the time you’re three or four. And you’ve fallen onto grass patches or rocks in rivers.

                   You learnt a physical toughness that I don’t think I would’ve really owned without that upbringing. It was, for me, those bumps and those bruises and those cuts, they’re a privilege. They were never a burden.

                   They were the privilege, because if my family didn’t allow me to get those moments, if my community told me that it was not acceptable to crawl after my classmates, then I learned that I’m not one of them, I learned that everyone else dictates to me what normal is. And that’s not going to happen.

AL               So you’re a father of one child now, with another expected along any minute.

KF              Any minute. You might hear the phone ring and me be running, run to the doors. We are eight, nine days overdue. So that, yes, it’s exciting.

AL               So how do you think now as a dad about generating that resilience? Because it’s on of the things I think a lot about, as the father of three boys, how do I put them through experiences that don’t crush their spirit, but that teach them they’re able to overcome challenges they thought they’re incapable of tackling.

KF              Yes, I’m proud of how I grew up, as in crawling through those things, but I don’t want to see that happen again. There are different challenges out there. It’s nice, I like being able to tell me story about a guy in a wheelchair learning to crawl across hills.

                   But we need to be start talking about other stuff, specifically with wheelchairs. I want to start talking about how do we get the next kid in a wheelchair not wanting to crawl through paddocks, but crawling into Parliament, you know what I mean? We need to talk about being CEOs of organisations.

                   And when I sit down with my young bloke, I remind him every day that he’s strong, and he’s kind, and he’s generous, and he’s allowed to have his own tumbles and falls and cuts and bruises. I think however much I love Harry, however much I don’t want him to feel discomfort, I’ll do him a disservice if I don’t allow him that.

                   And when I do go back to Carcoar, he does get the crawling through, the walking through paddocks. Me crawling after him. But he also, he’s going through a school system in Newcastle that’s different to me. He’ll have different challenges.

                   I went through with 12 kids in my year in all school, and all of them were my family, where he’ll have… And he’s growing up with social media. So I just want to make sure that he feels safe, he feels loved, he feels like he can challenge himself, and that we will be there to pick him up. But I think he’s only, he’s nearly four now, and I think that he understands that there’s a few bumps and bruises that he’s allowed to, and should, and hopefully will receive.

AL               Yes, and your first introduction to sport, or to wheelchair sport, came through wheelchair basketball, right?

KF              Yes.

AL               Tell me about the first time you saw wheelchair basketball.

KF              So I was still, it was probably year eight or nine, I was still crawling around playing footie with everyone. I was getting slower, and though everyone else was getting bigger. All of my peers were starting to become more aware, or more, yes, probably more aware that I was a bit different.

                   And I was becoming more and more aware that I was less competitive, that I was a lot less able to keep up with them. And then my teacher brought out, she probably brought out 20 wheelchairs and a wheelchair basketball day that’s still going to the day, to the day in Blayney.

                   It’s still getting… It’s no kids in wheelchairs anymore, but it’s still educating Blayney High, Bathurst High, Orange High. They send a team in to Blayney High every year and they play the wheelchair basketball cup.

                   But for me, the first time that I saw my peers in wheelchairs, it’s just... Gives you a level of normality that I hadn't experienced before. And that’s the beauty of sports, and that’s the beauty of the Paralympic movement, is that we show a variation of life, and show it in such a way through sport that it shows it in a strong way, a normal way. And there’s beautiful parts to it.

AL               You write in your autobiography about the sense you have that wheelchair racers have no barriers when dealing with kids. That sometimes other athletes can be a bit standoffish. But I think you talk about Nunas in particular as being somebody who’s so accessible to kids.

KF              Our culture is that we look after the next generation, because we’ve had to, a lot of our guys, it’s expensive to buy a wheelchair, it’s hard to find your way out of the day-to-day struggles of disability a lot of the times for a family. That when you run into this culture of sport and disability, we just grab hold of it and bring him as close into the family as they can, to feel like they know that we’re there for them and we are their extended family.

                   And Nurrey, Nunas, he looked after me as a young bloke. Louise Sauvage looked after me. Even my major competitors from abroad, Jeff Adams, a Canadian wheelchair racer, who’s current world champion, would allow me to sleep on his couch for months on end. And he basically taught me to beat him. And that’s…

AL               That’s an extraordinary thing.

KF              Well, that’s hopefully what I’m able to do. I don’t think that I’ll… If I’ve been a part of the next group coming through and allowed, played a small part in them being more successful than I am, then I’ve been successful at keeping my sport the way it’s been kept for 60 years.

AL               And how did you feel when you first saw the Australia Day Race on TV? That’s the moment at which you started to move beyond, move from basketball to racing, wasn’t it?

KF              Well, basketball’s a good game, but wheelchair racing is sport. I just loved it. I was probably 14 when I saw this thing. And the streets of Sydney shut down for a wheelchair race, and these guys were flying. And they were big guys, big blokes. When I saw it I just wanted to be a part of it. One of those moments where it just blows your mind.

                   It opened up this idea of strength in disability that up until that period of time, the only other people in wheelchairs that I would see would be people who were sick. And disability is not sickness. And when I saw that disability’s natural and strong, and you can manipulate that life into being a pretty fit and powerful one, and those guys were nailing it, and I wanted to have a crack, I guess.

AL               How’d you go on your first race?

KF              Terrible. I spent a lot of time at being a pretty average wheelchair racer. But I’m pretty grateful of ten years of losing before I won, because being comfortable with getting your butt handed to you for an extended period of time, and I got to develop the drive to become better.

                   And if I would’ve learnt that I was successful as a kid, then that drive wouldn’t be as strong as what it is now. And I know it takes decades to do anything that’s worth doing, and that came from being a pretty average athlete for a fair while.

AL               So you’ve done some pretty phenomenal things to your body in races. Athens, 2004, you passed out after the race.

KF              Ah, Athens. The whole race was running on empty. Athens was the culmination of 12 months of my coach Andrew, who has coached me since I was 13, and that relationship, an honest relationship, that I’ve got with Dawes in a very… As in there’s a lot of trust and a lot of belief in, I guess, each other. Because he sets down a thing and he believes that I can get there, and I just assume that’ll take place if he says that it can.

                   But he built me that year to be just tough. And 2004, I’ve been faster in my life, I’ve been stronger in my life, but in ’04 in Athens, I was the toughest that I’ve ever been. And that race, I just I destroyed myself there. That was just brutal. It was a 20k hill in the middle 20k of the marathon. I, mate, I just ripped everything down, everything.

AL               And then New York, 2006. One of your great races where you crashed.

KF              Yes, and it’s also, it’s one of the coolest. I’ve been able to race for 20 years now, and for the first ten years of them I was on my own just wandering around the world with the race chair turning up at places.

                   2006 was when I took my dad across. And dad’s, he’s a labourer out of Carcoar. And he’s travelled to, up until that point, he did come to Athens with me for the time abroad for him. The first time out of New South Wales, Queensland, I think. And then he came across to watch New York.

                   And I crashed at about 19k and I was able to throw myself back in. And it was covered live on telly. And he’s sitting at the finish line watching it. He sat there on the finish line in New York and saw me cross that line in front of about 50 million people watch it live. There’s two million people on the sides of the road.

                   And he stumbled over to me with busted up old knees, bawling. And you’d rarely see your dad cry, but just overwhelmed by everything. And turned around and receiving these gold medals from Tiffany’s. And jumping into limousines being rushed up and down the streets of New York with, again, with me and two bushies sitting there just thinking, what’s going on?

                   Spent the day with Lance Armstrong, who, which reflective, retrospectively, I guess, has taken on a different meaning, or a different emotion. But yes, mate, that day when, I think, that day, I remember that it was one of the times when everything fell apart, but the immediate response was just, just get up, do it, go harder, back myself.

                   And when I fall off the perch, and when you do talk about, talking about things that you want to get across to your kid, or any young person, it’s being able to believe in yourself when things get hard, when things get tough.

                   And about having that conversation with yourself when your body is exhausted, or you’re stressed, or you’re going through those challenging moments, and really convincing yourself you’re worthy of stuff. And that day was a big one. Things fell apart, and immediately my body and my mind just backed myself to be able to handle it.

AL               And you set a course record that year too.

KF              Yes, I haven’t been able to get it since. I haven’t got within…

AL               Maybe you need to crash every year just to…

KF              One of those when you get adrenaline and strength and belief, and they all line up, you just do some pretty good things. So if you can line up something that’s an emotion that’s outside of the norm, and the adrenaline that’s above what you can naturally tap into, and you’re fit and strong and driven anyway, then you just, you rip things apart.

AL               So you’re back in New York two years later, 2008. And something else goes wrong on the Willis Avenue Bridge.

KF              Yes, yes. Literally. It was shit. Ah, it was…

AL               Maybe we should talk this through for people who don’t run marathons and aren’t aware of the, one of the challenges that all marathoners face.

KF              I was leading the marathon, I was leading it from the bridge, from the gun. And you pump your heartrate up. It’s straight up a bridge from the start. You pump your heartrate up to maybe 190 in the first mile, and just to get a break on the guys.

                   And then you’re cramping through the belly, first of all, and that is, there is natural cramps and then there’s trouble. But I was cramping through the stomach and chest, and I just kept on pushing and pushing and pushing.

                   And you start to, you go a bit distant on the reality that you’re feeling. Because the pain’s pretty high, you’re trying to pull yourself out of that moment. And with about 9k to go, everything just started cramping again. And all of a sudden I’d just come back to the reality where I’m sitting there and I shit myself.

                   And it’s just a horrible thing to bloody have done. And you got this constant conflict over that last 2ks and you’re just thinking, do I stop? Do I…? What do you do at that point in time? And it is, honestly, there's a lot of money on the line and it’s New York.

                   And you’ve dreamt about this thing, and you pushed yourself, and you believed that you’ve got to win it. And literally, even sitting there with shit in my pants, there was still, the head just switched off, forget about it, do what you’d come here for. And pushed the body even further.

                   It was a challenge, mate. And I don’t know if it was to happen now, I don’t know whether I would be as single-minded to push through that sort of stuff. It was, yes, it messed with my head for a while. It took me ten years to tell people. I’m sure they smelt it on the day.

                   But again, what do you do? If you’ve got to crawl through shit to do the thing that you absolutely love, and you believe that you need to do almost, you got to do it, then I’ll do what I got to do.

AL               But as you put out in your autobiography, there’s no point sooking, and you’re not the first marathoner to whom this has happened.

KF              No, Rob de Castella, and he kept running. And I do like to, just whenever it comes up, I do short-ball Deeks. Yes, but that’s it. You would know, your body is in a constant… Maybe not crapping yourself, but your body is in a constant…

AL               I’ve had to stop in porta-loos on multiple marathons.

KF              Your body is in a constant degree of discomfort. And it is doing everything it can to make you stop. And that’s why I always think that the strength to be able to win marathons, a lot of it comes from your body. A lot. But there is a mental strength and drive that defines the top of any event.

AL               Now you’ve churned out some pretty extraordinary statistics. Your reading-out data from Rio has your heartrate going to 190 beats a minute, and staying there for 90 minutes. Now your maximum, if we take 220 beats a minute, subtract your age, your heartrate shouldn’t be able to go much above 180.

                   And yet, you get it to 190 and keep it there for that huge amount of time. What are you doing to your body in training to allow it to push to those almost superhuman levels?

KF              During ’04 we did all of our training at that level. So I think that actually changed the way that a lot of wheelchair racers trained from then, as in there were no more slow rolls. It was all just really high intensity.

                   And even to this day at this track we do, I would say, 90% of our work is at the really high intensity end. And I naturally hold quite a high heartrate, even though my resting is in the 40s. I just naturally, I can hold quite a high one.

                   But also, I feed very well into those high adrenaline moments where my body responds really, really quickly, and just deals with it. So if I sit on a start of a training run, my heartrate might be 60, but if you get me into the start of Boston Marathon, or the start of Athens, or Beijing, my heartrate will be 150 on the start line, before I’ve engaged any muscle.

                   But we constantly make sure that we’re not causing damage. My heart’s just, it’s quite a healthy heart. It’s large, it’s flexible, it’s pliable. And it does the job when needed.

AL               And it’s been trained up using oxygen deprivation tanks, you told me before.

KF              Yes, I did about 12 months on it, and then I grew up out at Carcoar which is near Bathurst, and I was having yarn to Mark Renshaw, who’s a Tour de France rider. And we knew each other since before he was on the tour. And talking about training.

                   And he was talking about a time that he was on one of those machines and it just made him fall off the bike, because it was just taking its toll on him. And I got a bit concerned after that, because I’m tied in a wheelchair and I’m not going to fall, I’m just going to slump, which means I won’t get the mask off me. So I got a bit more concerned about training in the altitude chambers.

                   Although my body did respond quite well to them, I think it was probably around when I got Harry that I just thought, you know what, probably take a lot more risk out of what I do. And just make sure that I still push everything that I can while I’m out there training, but I did lose a couple of those little one percenters that were just, they’re not risks that I’m willing to take.

AL               Yes, yes. How often do you vomit in training?

KF              Not as much as what I used to. Geez, look, I’ll feel nauseous at the end of every session. Because if you’re training in the high 180s, it’s just the way it is. Yes, I’m a lot tougher, actually, than what I was, even to be able to handle those sessions. I’m a lot more exhausted after the sessions. But I just, I’ll push myself to a speed, but I won’t be vomiting at the moment. I’ll be able to physically handle it. I don’t know whether I’m tougher or softer.

                   But it’s, at the moment, thankfully, I’m not spewing too much on the blue. But yes, this track, which we call the blue, it’s seen some tough sessions in its life.

AL               So speaking of tough sessions, Kokoda, 2009. You decided that you would crawl a 96km track. What drew you to it and what was it like?

KF              Firstly, I would recommend everyone to do it. I constantly wonder about what it is to be Australian, and that track actually taught me, I think, a fair bit about that. The idea is that these average blokes decided to sacrifice everything for their neighbour, and for the ability to be able to choose, have choice in our lives.

                   And the conditions that they went through, you can’t describe it. You’ve just got to be there. It’s, I find that place it’s like a… And I’m sure there’s plenty other places that Australians did this, but for me that was just, I don’t know, almost somewhat spiritual being there.

                   And I know I want Harry to do it. I know I want this next baby that we’re able to bring into the country, I want them to be able to go there and see it. Because it meant a lot to me. And I did it with all of my family, all of us blokes. It was the first time I’d supported Movember.

                   We’re a big family of blokes, and growing up in the bush, open communication is not something that you just come across naturally. And I had it around me. I had it around me that it was all right for me to be able to speak about my vulnerabilities. That it was all right for me to be able to ask for a hand. That it was all right for me to be able to look up and receive and jump on a shoulder.

                   There’s a lot of Aussie, especially there’s a lot of blokes around, that perceive that as just weakness. And it’s not. It’s just not. Looking and ask for help, being honest to people around you, there’s only strength. There’s strength to the individual, strength to the family, strength to the workplace, strength to the country.

                   If we can have honest, upfront conversations with each other, we all benefit from it. And I felt like doing that track, it highlighted that if a bloke feels like he can be honest with the people around him, then a guy in a wheelchair will think he’d be able to cross Kokoda. And that was pretty much the driving forces, is that trying to get that idea across.

AL               The Aussie bloke is not a species known for asking for help, as you say. But you also put your body through enormous amounts. Were there any bits of you that weren’t scratched to shreds by the end of the day? I think you said it was like being put through a meat grinder.

KF              It was punished. Punished. I can’t describe the… The easiest part, or the hardest part of every day, I guess, was when you stopped crawling, because all the aches and cuts. And I’d just strip off at the end of the day, and people would go, I’d be like a gorilla. People would be looking for fresh cuts to cover, and bruises.

                   And mate, I lost… I started at, I think, 53 kilo and I finished about 46. I had done 18 months’ worth of crawling to get ready for it, to get my body beaten up enough to feel like it could make an 11-day trek. But it was just, it was brutal. Brutal. But I would do that… Still the best thing I’ve ever done.

AL               And what was it like to meet Papua New Guinean kids with disabilities on the Kokoda trail?

KF              Yes, see this blows my mind. Where we, I think, we’re fortunate to be in this country for so many reasons. First, we’re just in peace. How good is that there’s no conflict on our doorstep?

                   But then there are just these realities. Two-thirds of the world who require a wheelchair that won’t even ever see one. Two-thirds. And you’d like to sit here and say, all right, well, let’s find the money to be able to pay for the wheelchairs.

                   But you give the wheelchairs, and what are they? They’re useless, because the setting doesn’t allow the individual or the family to be able to utilise it. So it’s more complex than that.

                   But that was the first time I sat there in a piece of land where these guys, not only beyond the structure, beyond the facilities available to them, beyond that, they were also just not… The automatic instinct wasn’t I have disability in my family, I have to challenge them, and get them outside, and get them into education, it was protective.

                   Very protective. Was we’ve got to look after them, and we’ve got to keep them away from the mud and the… And that hurts just as much, because you’re seeing these kids who have the same potential as me be sitting in little mud huts and not leaving ever.

                   And people being brought in front of me and being told that they hadn't been taken out of their house before. Communities didn’t know there was disability in there. Being brought in front of me in a wheelbarrow and dropping them. Yes, I’ve seen it across the world, it’s like this.

                   It’s a challenge and you’d like to think people would say, ah yes, but when you get back to Australia, it means you should be able to accept a few of those knocks. No, we should be perfect with what our community are able to offer disability. And we should be doing what we can to help elsewhere as well.

                   Yes, it’s a challenge to think about. And I hope when I’m done training, I know that when I’m struggling at times, we’ve been able to play a part in… We were working with some public education schools in Syria until tanks went through and demolished the school.

                   We’ve been working with kids with disabilities in Nairobi, in the Ruben Centre. Where there’s now, started off three kids five years ago, we’ve now got just shy of 40 kids, getting five days’ education, with disabilities. When I’m done racing, hopefully I’ll be able to put a bit more energy into stuff like that. Education is the key, mate.

                   You just got to get these kids. You got to find out a way to set up a structure in the community to set up them, give them access to a school. And they just need a presence. They need people with disabilities there to see that that is a possibility to them, for them. And yes, mate, it’s been something that both it drives me a bit, but it’s also, it haunts you a bit as well.

AL               You talk about Australia needing to be perfect, but of course, we’re far from that. You got back from Kokoda to Brisbane Airport and were told by an airline that they wouldn’t let you take your wheelchair up to the door of the aeroplane. And so…

KF              Well, they said that I wouldn’t be able to take my wheelchair past check-in. So they said that I’ll have to check my wheelchair in like it’s a piece of baggage. And my wheelchair is my life. It’s not a piece of baggage.

                   And people give me a bit of a ripping about it, saying, I have to check in my golfclubs, why should you not check in your wheelchair? I have to check in my pram. I’ll check in my pram. I won’t check in my legs. I won’t check in part of me.

                   And it’s still happening to the day. It’s still happening across Australia. I’m still being contacted by people. Hell, last Christmas I went to go away with my wife and my son and my mum and dad, and my flight got cancelled because I was the third wheelchair on the plane.

                   Supposedly the third wheelchair on the plane. And I had to relocate from Newcastle. I had to go down to Sydney and they wouldn’t allow me to cancel my wife and boy’s flights. They wouldn’t allow me to cancel mum and dad’s. So they all got on the flight.

                   And there wasn’t another person in a wheelchair there. There was a couple of people, elderly, clicked on they needed assistance. So they counted as the two wheelchair passengers. And I was the one that had to leave. And that’s when we’re letting… It’s the same with same-sex marriage. And I know it’s not a political thing that you do on here, but…

AL               No, go for it.

KF              When you put a policy down there that allows for a business to exclude someone, and it is down there that disability can be excluded due to unfair hardship or financial hardship, then people will take that option. They’ll take the easy road every day of the week. They just will.

                   And laws will then get in the way of someone like myself being a businessman. Or the law will get in the way of me being a dad, or a brother, or a sister. And if they don’t, if… I don’t know whether they, or if they don’t sort this law out for gay parents, then…

                   And if they don’t get rid of all these bloody loopholes about a cakemaker doing this, or whatever it is, allowing somebody to knock back a gay parent, then you’re going to allow someone to get in the road of another person being a dad or a mum, or allowing them to just exist. And it’s just when you do be a part of that, it’s brutal. It’s just brutal.

AL               So I also want to go to that specific moment in Brisbane in 2009. There’s a range of ways of forcing change, but you were faced with the only option being to be put in a chair where someone else had to push you, push you along. You choose to say no to that, and instead to crawl from the check-in counter to the gate. What made you make that choice, and why was that the right choice?

KF              I thought it was pretty naïve. It was pretty naïve. But I honestly sat there and thought, if I do this, they won’t do it again, which proved to be… If I do this, and I was giving the National, I was hosting the National Disability Awards four days after, and I speak about it at these awards, and I try and just get people to understand, then they just won’t be able to do it again.

                   And it was naïve. It didn’t work. But that was the rationale. And I thought, I can crawl here, so I can do this. Lots of other people can’t. They just, they won’t be able to, because the chair can’t be manipulated by anyone except for a passenger who’s walking behind you, or a staff member who’s walking behind you pushing the chair.

                   It’s got wheels on it like a shopping trolley. And you’re strapped into the thing. So you just lose every single degree of independence when you get on it. So I thought, I can make it, I can do it. So just do it and you might be able to implement a bit of change.

                   Again, it was naïve. I get contacted fairly consistently about people who have been put in these chairs and left while the plane boards and departs. I have had messages from people who said they’ve been left in the chair and peed themselves, because they haven’t been able to get a hand to get to the toilet.

                   I get these emails quite a lot. This is, it’s not over, you know what I mean? At some point we’re going to have to… And we’re not reinventing the wheel. The US do it quite well. They’ve got a Disability Transport Act and a Disability Discrimination Act that looks after the person with disability. It doesn’t look after the industry, it looks after the person.

                   We’ll get there. We’ll get there at some point. It’s just you’ve got to find the energy to be able to convince a big chunk of the people that laws are worth changing, to look after someone’s wellbeing and look after a fellow Australian.

AL               So there’s laws and then there’s also attitudes as well. You’ve written about how people think that it’s stairs, S T A I R S, that’s a problem, but actually it’s stares, S T A R E S. In what ways do able-bodied people screw up most often when they’re dealing with people and disability, with disabilities? And what should we do about it?

KF              I don’t know, mate. Look, we need to just, we’re going to go through a really challenging period of time over the next ten years. Because the NDIS, and I know that it has its good and its bad, but it’s changing a few lives.

                   And we’re going to get more and more people out into community, and it’ll be a constant fight. If people think that it’s going to be done in a year, it’s not done in a year. You don’t solve disability in a moment. You are going to have to constantly question how far do we want disability to go in our community, and how much are we willing to fund that?

                   And that’s going to be played out every year for the next forever. And I think that we need to, first, we need to start just seeing more people with disability going through to further education, more to employment. And more praise, and more focus given, not just to the… Look, I love my Paralympic movement. I think that we are some powerful people in there.

                   But we need to acknowledge that there’s a lot of hard work that’s happened to get a person with a disability into the corner shop, to get them to be working on the radio, to get them to working in small or large businesses, or law, or accountancy. We need to recognise and really start to assist with that process.

                   Employment is key, because all we need people to do is hang around disability more, and that just won’t be a question anymore. Because when you’re hanging around, we need more inclusive education, not less. We need less segregation. Less. We need not to be put in, even if we do have special education units, let’s get them into mainstream schools.

                   Let’s make sure that we… Because there’s no segregation in life after school. There’s just not. There’s no ability to hide someone for the rest of their life. So we just need people to hang around it more. And when they do, they’ll realise that it’s a pretty, it’s a variation of life, but it’s a pretty natural form of life. And what disability want more than anything, is normality.

AL               And normality, I’m guessing, probably isn’t when people praise you for opening a door.

KF              Praise, I don’t do very well at praise at all. I hate praise. That’s one of the things, whenever going to a comp, you’re constantly just burying yourself. And then I don’t do any gigs. I kind of bury and hide away, because the praise, I don’t find is very helpful for that stuff.

                   But no, we don’t need, we don’t need to be told we’re inspirational while we’re sitting at a set of lights trying to, about to cross the road. That’s life, we’re living it. And we’re all carrying around, we all carry around struggles.

                   We do live in a bloody beautiful place, and we are, I am, incredibly grateful for this life. But we’re all going to have to eat shit sandwiches every now and then. And just because you’ve never experienced disability, don’t allow it to get into all of your fears.

                   And I think that’s what happens. When somebody sees a guy in a wheelchair pushing along, they automatically feel the fear of them being in that wheelchair. But when you’re there, when you’re in it, it’s not as bad as your fears. It’s just not.

                   You just make it work. There’s a new normal that happens from that moment forward. And it’s the same with kids who are intellectually disabled, who are autistic, or who are Down Syndrome, or who are missing limbs. They find a new normal, and that new normal has a beautiful experience of life.

                   And we just need to get to the point where we accept that. We don’t automatically throw our fears onto the people that we meet. It’s just not how it works. And once we meet it, and see it more, and experience it more, that’ll just fall away.

AL               How’s being a dad changed you?

KF              Oh, it’s made me more emotional. And it’s made me more grateful. I just, I’ve never cried more in my life than the last three years. I don’t know what happens, it’s like I now, all of a sudden, three years into having Harry in my life, and I’m on a plane blubbering at some movie. And it’s just, they don’t tell you about that. They don’t tell you that it does make you more vulnerable, I guess.

AL               Has it taken any of your edge off? You said before you don’t do the oxygen deprivation, but that seems more about just a sensible safety move. Do you find that the single-minded focus that you had pre-Harry isn’t there as much?

KF              Honestly? Yes. But it’s not Harry, it’s because I’ve got joy in my life, you know what I mean? I love spending time with Sheridan and Harry more than what I love racing wheelchairs. And that’s, and I’m happy about that.

                   And before, when you’re 17, 18, 19, I loved that just raw, brute, training, racing. And that was my everything. It’s not my everything anymore. I’ve got things that I enjoy outside of that. But I’m more clinical now, I’m smarter now. I don’t do the really crazy training parts. But I train a lot wiser.

                   And when I get in a race, I am a little bit more ruthless, I guess. I’m a bit… I might stretch the friendship of my fellow competitors. But you’re just a different person. But yes, I’m definitely not that same single-minded thing that I was previously, but thank goodness.

AL               Yes, and when you talk about being ruthless with your competitors, I love your 2009 New York Marathon exchange with Krige Schabort, where you’re neck-in-neck and you do that glove punch kilometres from the end.

KF              Yes, I had… He is a bit of a… I love Krige, if I could emulate anyone’s career, or anyone’s way of living, he’s one of them. He’s, again, he’s still fit and active, he’s probably, he’d almost be 20 years my senior.

                   And he… I was off from the gun, out the door. Krige held onto the back of me, and I was grinding the pack. And that was went down to just me and him, and he said, Kurt, just give me a buffer. You’re going to win the race, just give me a buffer.

                   And I don’t know why, I just relaxed the attack. Then all of a sudden, 5ks later, he just started just ripping me apart. And the longer it went, the stronger it got. We got into the park at 35k, and I just went, thanks man, this is battle.

                   It was just a battle. Just, it was a boxing match. And you appreciate those ones, you really do. You appreciate just somebody just being a competitor, and just duking it out. And that was one of those ones.

AL               And we shouldn’t leave the listener without the end of the story. Who wins and by how much?

KF              Well, so that’s, this is where I probably was a bit ruthless as well. Because I led into the final sprint, and I picked it up. And then Krige tried to come around on the righthand side of me. And I just looked up and I thought, I am going to… He’s not getting past on the right.

                   So I put my chair straight to the right-hand barricade. And I thought, he can’t pass me on the right, he’s going to have to go back and go through on the left-hand side if he wants to pass me. I’ve set my line. And he didn’t, and he just went for that barricade thinking I’d let him. And I just didn’t.

                   And he had to lift the old front wheel up and go around the right-hand side of the barricade. Luckily he didn’t crash. And I won by about two-and-a-half inches. And I was… But that was one of those races where you just, you duke it out. And then you turn around at the end of the race and… He just turned around and he gave me a hug.

                   And there’s a photo of him hugging me at the end of the New York Marathon, and it’s the only picture that I have of wheelchair racing in my house. Because that’s the thing, you can be brutal out there, at the end of the day, these guys, they wear different colours, but you’ve got so much more in common with these blokes than 99% of the world. You’ve dealt with the same realities, just in different places. He’s a truly, truly decent bloke. And I’m grateful for that race.

AL               Struggling’s where the gratitude begins, as they say.

KF              Yes, yes. Well, you’ve got to realise how tough, you’ve got to have that idea, the reality that you’ve crawled through something to get there. I like the idea of struggling. I’m attracted to it. When I see people with a bit of grit, with the desire to do it a bit tough in training, I just want to be around it.

AL               What advice would you give to your teenage self?

KF              Nothing. Nothing. You would be tempted to tell your teenage self to stay away, but you just can’t. I’m, again, I’m grateful for every bump and bruise, every wrong path. It’s brought me here. And when you’re done, again, when you fall off the perch, the tough moments are the ones that you’re most grateful for.

AL               What’s something you used to believe, but no longer do?

KF              I used to believe, in general, I used to believe that every person is good. I now know there’s some people that aren’t good. There are some people that do have a lack of joy in their heart, and that you’ve got to not worry about that. You’ve got to allow them to go through their thing. And it’s their issue, it’s not yours.

                   But in general, I used to just think that the world was just full of bloody good people. And it is, by far it outnumbers the alternative. By far. But there are just people out there that they won’t feel that joy or love or… They just, they won’t. But don’t take that on you. Leave that to them.

AL               When are you most happy?

KF              When I’m around family. I love it. I just, yes, not just my immediate family. I do appreciate, especially when you spend life on the road, I do love being around my immediate family. But mum, and my dad, and my uncles, and my aunties, I love feeling as if I’m part of a tribe. Yes, I am a pig in crap, mate, when I’m there. Love it.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

KF              I tell myself every day that I can handle whatever it is. So I will have that conversation, if it’s a hard training session, if it’s a stressful period of life, if there’s things falling apart with my family, friends, then I just remind myself that I can get through it. And I’m somebody who needs to hear it, and I need to hear it from myself. And I take that active step, and it just makes life a little bit easier.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

KF              I love chocolate. Just love it. I love chocolate, and a couple of salt and vinegar chips.

AL               Dark?

KF              No, not dark chocolate. I love white chocolate, which is the worst for you.

AL               That’s it?

KF              Yes, yes, well it’s a lot more synthetic than the old milk chocolate. I would say if I was having a cheat day of tucker, it would be white chocolate or a Top Deck chocolate, it would be a salt and vinegar chips, and red wine. I love a red wine. I convinced myself if the guys can drink red wine on the Tour de France, it’s got to have some redeeming quality. But I’m kidding myself. It’s just a guilty pleasure.

AL               And finally, Kurt, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

KF              Shaping and living an ethical life. My grandma. I only knew her until she was four. Until I was four, sorry. But all I have is just, felt just love from her constantly. And it’s the same, I guess, that grandma is a pretty big representation of my mum and dad. They just, they genuinely want good for people.

AL               Kurt Fearnley, thanks so much for being on The Good Life podcast today.

KF              Thanks, mate.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.