Kurt Fearnley has won three Olympic gold medals and represented his country on the world stage across almost two decades, but he acknowledges his story is one that transcends the sporting field.
The 37-year-old wheelchair racer from Newcastle has been bumped up the batting order of Queen’s birthday honours, rising from the Medal of the Order of Australia he received 13 years ago to an Officer of the Order of Australia this year.
“I continually sit here amazed at the rooms I’m let into, let alone the letters I get to put behind my name,” he told the Newcastle Herald.
“You don’t know how to handle this sort of stuff. You race wheelchairs, you know.
“I race chairs. It’s one of the strangest things being told that you’re perceived in a certain way. It’s something that’s out of your control.”
Fearnley, who was born in the western NSW town of Carcoar as the youngest of five children, won 5000 metres and marathon gold at the 2004 Athens Paralympics and defended his marathon title in Beijing four years later.
In 2006 he became world champion in the 800m, 5000m and marathon in the Netherlands.
He said racing for his country had been the “greatest honour I could ever imagine”.
But, beyond the medals, the father-of-two has championed the rights of people, and particularly athletes, with a disability.
He has been an ambassador for a host of disability organisations, crawled the 96-kilometre Kokoda Trail in 2009 for Movember and Beyond Blue, and competed in the 2011 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
“My story’s not a sport story,” he said. “I’ve been given a platform.
“A really special part of Australia’s DNA is felt on the sporting field. I’ve been out there, and hopefully I’ve had conversations that are a lot more real than sport.
“One of the things I feel happy about is that there’s been somewhat of a purpose to a lot of the stuff I’ve been able to be a part of.
“Hopefully, I’ve been able to create a few real conversations that are about where disability fits.
“I’m a proud Aussie, and I’m a proud disabled man.
“Hopefully, at the end of my days I’ve made life a little bit easier for the next fellow who enters into the life that I’ve got.”
Fearnley ended his career in the green-and-gold by winning the Commonwealth Games marathon this year on the Gold Coast.
He will continue to race throughout the world, but his priority is to “be a dad for a while”.
“I’m enjoying running for the sake of being fit. I’m still going to do New York and Chicago [marathons].
“There’s lots on the agenda, but my goals are to try and spend a little bit of time at home, and kind of have that transition of competing for the joy of competing.”
KURT FEARNLEY, AO
Officer of the Order of Australia
Citation: For distinguished service to people with a disability, as a supporter of, and fundraiser for, indigenous athletics and charitable organisations, and as a Paralympic athlete.
Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, 2018, co-captain, Australian athletics team.
Member, Sport and Technical Advisory Council, 2013-2018.
Member, Athlete Representative Council, 2016-2018.
Games ambassador, 2016-2018.
Co-captain, Australian Paralympic team in 2016.
Member, independent advisory panel member, National Disability Insurance Scheme, 2013-2016.
Ambassador, Indigenous Marathon Project.
Active supporter, Humpty Dumpty Foundation, ongoing.
Board member, Australian Volunteers International, 2006-2015.
Active member, Sydney to Hobart yacht crew, Loyal Foundation, 2011.
Member, athlete council, International Paralympic Committee, since 2016.
Board member, Australian Paralympic Committee, since 2016.