By Ren Thompson
During a career spanning 25 years, Kurt Fearnley has seen almost everything on his journey in becoming one of the greatest Australian athletes in history.
When faced with one of the greatest challenges in modern times, who better to guide six of Australia’s best up and coming para-athletes selected as 2020 Kurt Fearnley Scholarship recipients through this challenging period than the athlete synonymous with toughness, perseverance, determination and discipline.
Broken bones, flat tires, difficult terrain, punishing weather, fierce rivals, to name a few, but rather than letting these challenges get the best of him, Fearnley used these obstacles to motivate him and provide the fuel to power him to victory.
Whilst directed to the scholarship holders in a special online induction, Fearnley’s message is equally applicable to all athletes in these uncertain times.
“One of the biggest reasons why I had a long and successful career is because I would always ensure that I was going to be the athlete that when it got challenging, when it got hard, when every other athlete was going to be shaken up or feel a level of discomfort, I backed myself that I was going to be the one who would deal with it the best,” Fearnley said.
“That I was going to use any sort of adversity, to convince myself that I was going to be the one who was going to nail it and use it to my advantage.
“If something fell apart on the start line, if a tire went flat midway through the race, if we were racing on cobblestones… I was going to be the one who would benefit from it.”
Calling time on his career at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games winning the gold medal in the T54 marathon, Fearnley produced an incredible list of achievements, two Commonwealth Games gold medals, three Paralympic Games gold medals, four world championship gold medals, 44 marathon victories from 76 entries, 11 Oz Day 10k wheelchair wins, evidence his mantra works pretty well.
But when speaking to the 2020 class of Kurt Fearnley scholarship recipients, the scholarship program named in his honour powered by the Carbine Club of NSW and Commonwealth Games Australia, Fearnley was honest to the new class of youngsters about facing a new and unseen challenge unlike any before on their own sporting journeys.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the sporting world, forcing Australian sporting organisations and institutions into cancelling events, tournaments and meets, and national sporting organisations to cancel training as the country’s citizens and athletes are encouraged into lockdown by staying home.
“We are in one of the most challenging times in sport we have ever seen, a challenge an entire generation has never seen, a situation 100 hundred years of competitive sport has never seen,” Fearnley said.
“But while there is a lot of uncertainty about at the moment, the one thing we are certain about is that each one of you can represent our country in the long-term… we are trying to ensure you are wearing the green and gold uniform when it comes to Birmingham 2022 and beyond.
“So, no matter how much uncertainty there is at the moment, however much life is being altered, our belief in you has not altered.”
Lots of love to my athlete family. This will hurt, but this delay allows everyone to focus on the health and well-being of each member of our community. Performance can follow. Be disciplined, and get to the other side of this thing together. https://t.co/EuqdW8mOas
— Kurt Fearnley (@kurtfearnley) March 24, 2020
Born in the small town of Carcoar, in western New South Wales, Fearnley began his career at the age of 14, competing in his first race in a normal everyday wheelchair. But his talent and determination was evident, the 200-person town of Carcoar bounded together to help raise funds to buy him a racing wheelchair to compete internationally.
Now Fearnley is thrilled to be in a position to do the same for the next generation of para-athletes.
“My run in para-sport lasted about two and a half decades, I started when I was a little bit younger than the majority of you guys, but I was able to start because there was a generous community around me who donated money which made it possible, otherwise it would not have been possible,” Fearnley said.
“I am grateful to now be able to replicate this generosity through the Carbine Club and through Commonwealth Games Australia.”
The mentorship is already on show as Fearnley provided a steady voice through this unsteady period to the chosen young athletes bracing for an unsure short-term future ahead.
“I want to add a few parameters to the scholarship that will go into play over the next few weeks, hopefully over the next few days,” Fearnley said.
“I want you all to send me a text message over the next few days with two things you are grateful for, so despite everything which is happening right now, there is some positivity, whatever the positivity might be for you.
“I want you to message how you will change two ways you are going to alter training from an external environment to an internal environment… how are you going to change trainings to ensure you can do it when you are staying in your house.
“And finally, over the coming weeks I want you to send me a message, I want to make sure you are in communication with me over the next few months… weekly, fortnightly, whatever it is you feel you need.
“I want to make sure that while periods like this are going on, you guys know we are still here, we still believe in you, and no matter what uncertainty, because we all know as athletes we love certainty… I grabbed hold of certainty, I had 25 years where if I had an altered training session felt like my world was rocking.
“But there was those relationships during the hard times which would mean the most to me and got me through, so I want to make sure you each reach out to me on a regular basis just to check in and let me know how you are going.”
While the world continues to be unclear about what is next, Fearnley sees this challenge as a time for potential growth from these athletes who represent the future of Australian para-sport.
“The skills we create over the next few months will shape you for the next few decades, there are things we can get out of this time which will be extremely positive in helping to build who we are as people, so in six or 12 months, or 10 to 12 years, there is a lot we will be able to build in ourselves,” Fearnley said.
“If I was in your position right now, when the doors open [in the future], think I am going to be in the best position, I am going to be the one who deals with this next period better than anyone else in the world… I am going to be the one who says if they do put a competition on in the next few months, I am going to be the strongest person who hits the cycling track or the pool or the courts.
“You want to make sure during this period of time, you make the personal gains, you do the things nobody will ever see and we will find a way through it all… it is really important you focus on long-term over the next six months.
“As athletes, we are disciplined, we are really resilient… there is a reason why you are in this conversation right now and not your thousands of schoolmates, there is a discipline in you which has got you to where you are today…. now we just need to continue building that and become more disciplined and become more resilient for the future.
“This is the gift [of being an athlete] and what we need to show our classmates, show our communities, that we are taking every precaution we can possibly can and we continue to move forward and grow towards who we will become in three, five, 10 years’ time.
“You have a massive road ahead, it is going to be an incredible journey, six months will be a drop in the bucket when we get a decade or two down the line… that is who we are investing in, you as the person who will carry the flag of Australian sport in two, three, four years from now.
“I am grateful you are here, I am glad we could help you out, try to focus on the positive things and remind yourself you are the long-term future of Australian sport… and if you ever need a yarn I’m about.”
While there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, one thing is for certain the Kurt Fearnley 2020 Scholarship recipient athletes are in good hands.